Four and a half years ago the most wonderful, frustrating, amazing and perplexing person I know came screaming into the world.
She’s still screaming now. She is alternately giddy with joy, then mired in anguish – all within seconds. She feels each emotion at a hundred and ten miles an hour. Navigating the highs and lows of her day routinely leaves me reeling, baffled and exhausted.
So basically that means she’s your average four year old.
And that, I have realised, also means I’ve had her for more than a quarter of the time that she’ll actually be mine.
Now the screaming is no longer an external noise pollution. It’s in my own head, and my own voice. It reverberates around my skull, from temple to temple, and the roar of it buzzes loudly in my ears.
Yes, in just a few short weeks, my baby goes to school. And that four years has gone by in the blink of an eye.
Obviously, I have known this was coming. But it has arrived rather faster than I thought it would – and like so many parenting milestones it’s hit me a great deal harder.
Already I can see this complex little person is less and less mine everyday. And that hurts. She is more and more hers, more the product of her friends, her nursery teachers, her favourite book and tv characters. She is being shaped by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways – and my influence is well and truly on the wane.
Like most four year olds, she mostly knows best. She would prefer to experiment rather than take my word for something (often ending in the aforementioned screaming). Pretty much any authority is automatically ranked higher than Mummy. She doesn’t listen. And I am afraid, I am so afraid, that she is hurtling down the path to not hearing me at all. School will only speed that process up ten fold.
But school or no, the fact is I am no longer the centre of her universe, solver of all problems, comforter of all woes. (I’m more the spoiler of fun and dictator of broccoli). And that’s only going to get worse as her confidence and independence grow.
That is, of course, the natural order of things, and of course it makes me as proud as punch to see her flourish and find her feet. It is also a very real tragedy. It’s a tragedy I’m sure other parents of 2011/2012 babies are facing too.
I for one am not ready.
It’s not actually the baby I’m pining for. I don’t really want to turn the clock back. I love watching her develop and learn. Every stage of her life has been my favourite – the one right in front of me. (Apart from the screaming). No, the only thing that’s not grown into its potential is ME.
My real sticking point is the thought of the mother I thought I’d be and never was.
Suddenly, I’ve been swamped with all the things I haven’t done and said I would, and all the things I said I wouldn’t do but have done anyway. I’ve been busy. Stressed. Preoccupied. Frantic. Frazzled. Impatient. Imperfect. I’ve shouted. I’ve diverted. I’ve minimised. I’ve rushed. I’ve broken promises. I’ve broken down. I have not done enough, given enough, been enough. I’ve failed – often.
And all at once, it feels like it’s too late. I’ve squandered those precious years we had together, and the treadmill of real life has caught us up.
Because school is the beginning of a whole new chapter for her, a trajectory that will take her through education and into the world, away from me. So however much the logical part of my brain tells me she’s still mine evenings, weekends and holidays, that she is still going to need me for many years to come, the rest of me is gut-deep, goddam sure this is an ending.
The pangs I’m suffering are really pangs of withdrawal, because however selfishly, I loved being someone’s hero. Someone’s everything. Someone’s sun and moon. It’s addictive. And that time has passed. And I didn’t do it right. And I didn’t see the end coming.
But the truth is, she was never really mine was she? She was always hers. From the very beginning. I just got lucky enough to borrow her until she got bigger.
Letting go isn’t much of a choice. The separation has already started to happen without my say so. And now I’ve got to face a different stage of parenthood – one where I have gradually less influence and importance. It will still be my job to help her find her own way, and help her find the very best of herself. I can still be her hero, maybe, sometimes – but only when she needs me to be. Only from the sidelines. Only on her terms.
Now, parents of the class of 2016, we get to watch them as they grow. We get to watch them fly – even if it’s in the other direction. We get to catch them when they fall. We get to love them, even when they’re not in our arms anymore.
All we can hope, really, is that the connection we’ve built is strong enough to bring them back when they need us. An elastic band that can stretch to give them freedom, but snaps into place when they’re scared, sad, confused or conflicted.
All I can hope is that I haven’t fucked it up too much.
And in the meantime, I can frantically spend the summer paying into that pot of connection, and filling in some of the gaps that are haunting me. Doing some of the things I thought I’d do as a Mummy.
So this, friends, is my pre-school bucket list. Let’s see how far I get before September. Your ideas and tips appreciated.
1. The craft project
There will be glitter. There will be the regrets, swearing, and daily hoovering associated with glitter. There will be glitter found in personal crevices, on work shirts, and in the litter tray for weeks to come. But by God, there will still be glitter.
Look out Pinterest, here I come.
I’m not one of life’s natural scientists. But there will be diet coke. There will be mentos mints. There will undoubtedly be a lot of cleaning up.
3. Water play
We do some water play, but not enough. This is probably because it takes a lot of setting up – finding the right attachment for the sprinkler, adding buckets of hot water to the paddling pool so it’s not too cold, assembling children in swimwear, applying suncream to exposed body parts, preparing towels, and digging out appropriate plastic pouring vessels.
This will be followed by approximately five minutes of play, and then demands to go inside and watch the telly. But I will do it. I might even invest in some water guns. And I will take smug pictures for Facebook of my children looking momentarily happy.
4. The great outdoors
The biggest barrier to the great outdoors is Dadonthenetheredge, who prefers to receive his UV light in the form of iDevice glow. People’s legs will hurt. Their shoes will pinch. The sun will be too sunny. The rain will be too rainy.
But we live a stone’s throw away from some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK, and we will go out and bond in it whether anyone likes it or not. There will be stick sword fights. There will be picnics. There will be paddling. There may even be den building, but probably in the back garden.
5. One-on-one time
I don’t spend enough time one-on-one with the Big Small Person, because the Small Small Person came along and rather got in the way. While their burgeoning relationship is lovely, the impact on my relationship with the BSP has been huge, and not 100% positive.
I miss our games (apart from bucket list no 7), our chats, and playing with things small enough to fit in an esophagus. I miss focussing on her. So I plan to pack the baby off somewhere and concentrate – without distractions or goals – on just my big girl and whatever she wants to do.
Too often when the Big Small Person hits silly, I know she’s moments away from hitting crazy freaking meltdown. And I try and end the silly to prevent it. No more. There will be tickles, there will be wrestling, and yes, there will probably be tears before bedtime. But before that there will be giggling.
7. Imaginative play
My own personal hell, in which I’m not allowed any independent thought or action, and seemingly cannot EVER follow the instructions I’m given to the satisfaction of the three foot Director/Despot of the game. Also I am required to do the character voices (to the exact script and stage direction given) in public places. More on this another time. Just know that I shall grit my teeth and endure more of it instead of hiding in the kitchen pretending to make the tea.
I never baked anything other than potatoes before the small people came along, and since then have I’ve only begrudgingly extended my repertoire to include cupcakes. These sessions have been few and far between, though, as I cannot bear to witness either the mess or the incompetence. I will get over this.
I will let flour cover the kitchen, children, me and the cat. I will not intervene when most of the mixture is mixed straight out of the bowl. I will not show impatience when the mixing takes FOREVER. I will remain calm when people won’t take turns. And I will watch cheerfully as egg shell shards are dropped into the bowl and children cover themselves in slimy salmonella. I may even let them lick the spoon. (OK, that might be going a step too far).
Again, one related to the Small Small Person. We’ve not done enough of this sort of thing because it’s not really baby-compatible. And to be fair, also because the Big Small Person has an exceedingly low threshold for ‘mild peril’. But there will be popcorn. There will be dark. There will be cinematic or theatrical magic. And there will probably be a lot of soothing and assurance that everything will work out alright in the end.
10. Not shouting
There will be a day. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Ish. Where –
Even if I’ve asked people to put their shoes on three billion times. Even if we’re late. Even if the small people are trying to exterminate each other. Even if I’ve asked someone not to do that less than two seconds ago. Even if the prospect of bedtime is still distant.
Wish me luck.
And let me know what’s on your bucket list, too.