With the kids going back to school this week (Hurray!!), I thought this rather poignant article my wife wrote about our youngest son starting nursery last year was worth an airing. He is four now and starts Reception on Friday. It will be a Big Gulp moment, let me tell you. He and I have had six whole weeks together, and as much as I complain about the frustrations of being a SAHD, I will miss him massively. I will miss all three, of course, but his stepping up a year feels especially poignant. He is astonishingly wonderful company.
This week’s theme: My nest is EMPTY!
We walked along the pavement hand-in-hand and passed through the school gate. At the classroom door, I crouched down and my three-year-old son placed his arms around me and pressed his face into my neck.
‘Have a great time,’ I said.
Then, in the next moment, he was taking the hand of another woman and waving me goodbye. The classroom door closed and a chapter of my life ended.
My youngest child had started nursery full-time.
I thought I’d feel excited. Instead I went home, made myself a cup of tea and had a good old howl. Anyone would have thought it was me starting nursery, not my son!
‘Don’t worry,’ said The Husband. ‘You’re just mourning the baby years. You’ll get over it.’
But all week I felt wobbly and weepy. The house was so quiet. I missed our mornings watching CBeebies together and our afternoons strolls to the park to feed the ducks.
I made myself busy. I scrubbed out the kitchen cupboards. I cleaned out the fridge. I even dared to venture beneath my nine-year-old daughter’s bed and found a mug that had gone missing three months before.
But the time dragged. I kept checking the clock to see if it had stopped. I felt out of sorts and limp, like a damp rag.
‘I’ve got all the oomph of a wet lettuce,’ I said to my friend Sue over a cup of tea later that week. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’
‘I do,’ she said. ‘You’ve got Empty Nest Syndrome.’
She explained. It was the term given to explain the loss and sadness that many parents experienced when their children no longer lived with them or needed day-to-day care. It was common when kids left home for college or university.
‘But he’s only gone to nursery,’ I said to Sue.
‘It can strike at any time,’ she said. ‘It’s not surprising really when you think about how much our lives change when we have kids.’
On the way home I thought about what she’d said. Ten years ago, my life was different. It was all about me. I went out to work, I spent what I earned on myself, I was selfish. If I wanted a new pair of shoes I bought them. If I wanted to go out with my friends I didn’t have to think twice about it.
Then I became a mother and things changed.
Instead of pursuing a career, I fitted work around the children. I spent what I earned on them. I put them first and me last. I didn’t mind. It was what I wanted to do. Now a decade had flown by. The kids were all at school and didn’t need me to be around as much. I took a long, hard look in the mirror and got a shock.
I thought: ‘I’m over 40, I’m going grey and I’m heading for the menopause. If I were a horse, I’d be put out to grass….Or worse.’
Never mind my baby years being over, I reckoned my best years were over!
I felt redundant. I’d given up my life for my children and now they were moving on. What would I do now?
Next day, after the school run, I walked home via the park. As I passed the swings I caught sight of some mums with their toddlers.
‘How lovely,’ I thought. ‘I wish that was still me.’
Then I took a closer look.
One mum was running around the playground after a shrieking toddler. One was trying to change a nappy on a bench. One was shouting. One was trying to drag her child off the slide while balancing a baby on her hip. And one was trying to coax a grumpy toddler into his buggy but every time she got him in, he got out again causing the buggy to tip over and all her bags to spill over the floor.
‘I’ve had enough of this!’ she cried, pulling at her hair and looking close to tears.
And I thought: ‘Yes, love. You’re right.’
I’d been mourning the end of a golden age but had it really been as wonderful as I remembered?
The years when our children are very young are precious. But they are also the hardest. Yes, there are magical moments but there are many more moments of sheer slog.
For nine years I have had at least one child in nappies, or in a buggy or walking so slowly I’d sprout a new grey hair by the time we’d made it to the shops and back.
I’ve lost count of the number of sleepless nights I’ve had, of tantrums, and of days out that started with high hopes and ended in tears and a massive sense of failure.
When the kids were very small I used to fantastise about what I’d do when they were grown up with homes of their own. I’d draw on their walls, pour washing up liquid into their fish bowl, take one single bite out of every apple in their fruit bowl and refuse to eat anything that wasn’t smothered in ketchup. And on trips out I’d wait until everyone was in the car before announcing that I needed a wee and I’d shout: ‘Are we nearly there, yet?’ before we’d even set off.
After all, I’d think, it’s just what they have done to me!
It’s easy to look back on the baby years with a rose-tinted view but those same years can leave mums feeling isolated, depressed, overwhelmed, frightened and angry.
I know. I’ve been there.
When my six-year-old son was a baby, I took him and his sister, then three, out for a picnic. Halfway through our sandwiches, my daughter needed the toilet. I took her off behind the nearest tree but then she refused to come out again. I tried to coax her but she ran off.
Of course, I had to go after her but I daren’t leave my baby so I scooped him up and carried him as I ran through the trees looking for my little girl.
I couldn’t see her anywhere. I called her name. Nothing.
I started to panic.
And then my foot caught a tree root. Before I knew what had happened I was falling, clutching my baby son to my chest.
I fell. The baby landed beneath me. And then my daughter stepped out from where she’d been hiding behind a tree.
At that moment I began to cry. Part of it was fear I’d hurt my son, part was relief my daughter was safe, part was anger at her behaviour and part was pain from my twisted ankle. But the main cause of my tears was a terrible and overwhelming sense of failure.
I thought: ‘I can’t do this. I can’t cope.’
Of course, I did cope. When you’re a mum you just have to get on with it. But now, as I watched the mums in the park battling with their double buggies, their baby bags and their fractious toddlers, I could honestly say: ‘I’m glad that’s over.’
Yes, I may be middle-aged. Yes, I may be going grey on top and saggy in the middle and, well, let’s not talk about the bottom, but at least I will never again have to deal with The Baby Years.
Instead, I can start to be me again, the person I was before I was Mum. What will I do? Who knows. But whatever it is, I won’t be attempting to do it while attached to a small child. I can’t wait.