Sophia started pre-school last week, and after a few days of settling her in, today is the first day I’ve left her on her own. I’m huddled in the nearest cafe to pre-school (a good three minute walk away), watching the snow fall outside, and wondering how my tiny little baby is suddenly big enough to cope for two hours without me. At least, I hope she is.
Sophia is an independent, feisty, determined little girl, who rushes headlong to meet life and new experiences, so I think she’s going to be fine. So far she’s seemed to love it, and when Nanna and Grandad came to visit she was excitedly telling them about the ‘yide’ (slide), ‘beep beep car’, ‘yand’ (sand) and ‘tiny house’ she’s been playing with. She is going to benefit so much from the play and socialisation opportunities which pre-school can offer. And to be honest, I’m going to benefit so much from three mornings a week to have a little break from 24/7 childcare and a chance to do some more writing, maybe a little exercise, and remind myself I’m a person as well as a mother.
But, but but. It brings to the fore the contradiction inherent in parenting. My job is to create two independent adults who can go out and make a place for themselves in the big wide world. We celebrate every little step along this path – holding their heads up, rolling over, sitting up, eating solid food, standing, walking, running, talking, feeding themselves, coming out of nappies, getting themselves dressed, holding a pencil, learning to read and write, making friends, starting school, singing in the school Christmas concert, making their own snacks for themselves, and many, many more. We teach and encourage and nag and cajole and bribe and praise. We are so proud of every tiny yet enormous achievement that our hearts burst with it. And yet they also break a little. Because every one of these milestones, necessary and celebrated though they are, is a step along the road to them not needing mummy any more. To mummy and daddy not being the lodestar of their lives. To interests and loves and experiences and mistakes that we will not, cannot, should not share.
If I do my job properly, one day Anna and Sophia won’t need me anymore. All my efforts are directed towards this end, and I would be devastated if I failed, and yet when I succeed I will grieve bitterly for the little girls whose every need from milk to cuddles to comfort to company I could provide for. At nearly eight Anna is already at a stage where she has problems that I can’t necessarily solve, but I still know what the problems are, and a cuddle still makes her feel better at least. In a few years there will be issues with friendships, crushes, schoolwork which she won’t even want to tell me about.
I visualise my love for the children as a very soft, very warm, invisible blanket which surrounds them at all times. They might not be with me, and they might be having problems I can’t solve, but I can’t shake the sentimental belief that my love is so strong that it will enfold them and protect them wherever they are, and that our unconditional love and acceptance will make them strong enough to cope with whatever life throws at them.
And, of course, if they’re anything like me, and they have babies of their own one day, I will suddenly be needed again. “Mum, is this normal?”, “Mum, what do I do?”, “Mum, can you babysit for me?, “Mum – help!”