Earlier this year, we were on a family holiday in Bali when we received the news that my father-in-law had passed away.
It was surreal to know that he was no longer with us as we had lived on the other side of the world from him for a year and a half and had not had him with us during this time anyway. The phone rang, we heard the words and then our toddler needed her nappy changed.
The ultimate distraction, no matter what the circumstances.
So we jumped on a plane and flew the 24 wriggling, toddler-on-lap hours to Wales and slipped straight back into our life there with the gaping absence of my husband’s dad. Our daughter had a language explosion in the first week and cuddled her cousins and made her Nain, grandmother, smile. There is nothing like a child’s innocent laughter to lift your heart and their needs, their routine just keep the days turning into nights turning into days. Children are the human embodiment of the age old phrase ‘life goes on’.
In amongst the soup of grief, I know one layer belonged to guilt. Particularly for my husband who had spent just one year out of the last three and a half, at home with his family. Eighteen months earlier we had decided to move to Melbourne once and for all and so had packed up our baby and house and took the leap for the sunny shores of my home-town. This weighed heavily on him despite everyone telling him that his dad was so happy for him to be living in Australia. That it was the best place for him.
It made me realise what a gift my father in law has given his son. The gift of independence, unwavering support, the ultimate sacrifice of allowing your child to leave your side, make their own path, live their own life. The fact that my own daughter is British born, an Australian citizen only by descent, makes me wonder if I could ever give her the same blessing. Or if she would ever even ask for it before packing her burgundy passport into her pocket and traipsing off to see the world.
This separation, this long, slow severing of her dependence exclusively on me, has already started to happen by degrees. When we finished breast feeding. When she starting sleeping through the night. When she started saying “bye” as a request for me to leave the room she is playing in. Snip, snip, snip.
She decided to toilet train herself recently without any input from me whatsoever and a few weeks ago, I walked into the kitchen to find that she’d made herself a piece of toast. Not just toasted it, but buttered it and poured herself a glass of juice. It pains me watching her be so independent. I can unplug toasters but I cannot put out the fire of her determination.
When I leave her to go to work twice a week, she is usually sitting on the couch with my parents or my husband reading a book or showing them one of her tiny plastic animals that seem to be breeding in my house.
“Bye,” she says and waves to me over her shoulder as I pause at the front door.
“See you later darling,” I call out.
I try not to show her how much it pains me to leave her. I smile and try to match her enthusiasm for our upcoming day apart. Oh but sometimes it hurts. I get into my car and watch her through the window, laughing and waving and dancing, silently behind the glass. I wish I could freeze time, keep her this size forever with her gappy front teeth and baby-talk and fluffy hair. I watch her for as long as I can before I remember that if I don’t turn up for work, I won’t get paid and there’ll be no windows to watch her through as there will be no house.
This morning, I heard her wake up at about 5.00am and start pottering around her room. I called out to her and saw her sleepy little form wander into our bedroom before I shifted over and lifted her into our bed. She lay right in my warm spot on the mattress, the dimensions of her body a replica of mine, but for the passage of time.
I cuddled my baby in those early, quiet minutes while the world woke up around us. The big, wide, amazing world that houses love and laughter and delivered my beautiful Welsh husband right to me on a beach in Melbourne after his parents had waved him off. This huge wild world where the sun comes up and goes down and people pass away and babies are born and toddlers toilet train themselves and make toast for breakfast.
My universe has shrunk to begin and end with her, but her own life, her own adventure, her own world, is just beginning to reveal itself.
She still asks after her Taid, the Welsh word for grandfather. I’ll explain it all to her someday after her first day of school or when she gets her licence or, deep breath, her first boyfriend, all those snip, snip, snip moments that cut away a piece of my heart with them.
I’ll tell her that she now has my whole heart, that I’ll always be with her and that eventually, we all have to say goodbye.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem