The babyccino years
It’s the end of an era, a period of time that, thanks to my youngest (and with apologies to Sue Townsend), I now think of as the ‘babyccino years’. I didn’t really do coffee shops with my son; he was a livewire, not the type to sit nicely and colour while mummy had a chat. But his sister is all over that sort of thing; going to a café like a grown-up and reading her Disney magazines. She even has her favourite places (the one with the eggs; the one with the gingerbread men; the one in the park). For much of my time at home with her over the last couple of years, that has been one of the ways we whiled away the hours. But those days are numbered now; Reception looms.
It's always special and challenging when any child starts ‘big school’. The main thing, of course, is that it’s a milestone for them. Their chance to go off into the world, five days a week, their time to learn to read and write, to make friends that might or might not last a lifetime, to negotiate the joys and struggles of playtime and friendships and listening to teachers. But it’s a milestone for parents too, and particularly, I think, when it’s the only child, or the last.
With a four-year age gap between my children, I’ve had a pre-schooler at home for most of the last decade. To be brutally honest, there has been many a long afternoon when I’ve pined for this time: the September when they would both be in full-time education. For every Instagram post of carefree puddle-jumping in a jaunty bobble hat or ice-cream- covered grins in the sunshine, there were twenty more days when I simply endured the endless wiping, the loads of laundry, and what I came to think of as the ‘tyranny of the living room’ – being indoors, with a toddler; so much time on my hands and yet somehow, none of it mine.
I haven’t been at home the whole time – for some of it I’ve had the sort of jobs that were, in truth, full-time duties crammed into part-time hours, punctuated by days ‘off’ on which to do the housework, the school run and entertain the child who didn’t yet have anywhere to be. At other times I’ve tried to work from home and freelance around my domestic duties, something I never truly felt I made work. And most recently, through the pandemic, I’ve been home.
When I look back on these pre-school years, the overriding sense is of being permanently-accompanied. The littlest is always in tow, either tagging along on errands or directing the six hours between school drop-off and pick-up with trips to soft play, playgroups and the swings. You get used to it, the good and the bad, from emergency nappy changes in the boot of the car to the contentment of that little hand in yours as you potter around, in one respect simply killing the hours until school pickup, yet in another soaking up every precious moment of it. Now it’s goodbye to all that.
I know my little girl is ready. She loves her school uniform, she’s seen the classroom, she wants to copy her big brother. She’s been at home for six months, thanks to lockdown. She’s school-ready, bright as a button, curious, sparky, chatty, an old, wise soul in a lithe, bouncy little frame. She’s going to fly.
But will I? On the eve of her first day at big school I’m torn in two: nostalgic that I’ll never again go to a playgroup or push a buggy, yet simultaneously desperate for the silence and headspace I haven’t experienced for six months.
Once upon a long time ago, I didn’t know if I could be a mum, let alone do most of it by myself. I thought of mothers as a different species, with some sort of gene that I didn’t have. It turns out that wasn’t the part I needed to worry about. For a long time after having a baby, I didn’t even know what had happened to that girl I used to be. I was never very good at the assimilation part of motherhood; fitting my new role into my old life without losing the person I was. Some women just ace that, take it all in their stride. I didn’t. For a while there I lost myself.
So what did happen to that girl? She went away for a while. She wiped a lot, and cooked and cleaned, and cuddled, and cared, and loved and lost, and fought, and survived. But she is still here, somewhere. Changed, rebuilt, transformed even, by the experience of bearing and raising those children; forged anew by the force of a love she couldn't have imagined; and fiercely proud of who they are. But also determined not to forget herself again. And right now, just like her daughter, she’s raring to go.