Marie McCoy describes the triumph and trauma experienced by parents as children take their first step on the educational ladder.
It was a glorious summer. Even here in Scotland we had more than our fair share of sunshine this year and we spent the holidays bouncing on our new trampoline, splashing in the paddling pool and visiting faraway family and friends we had missed during lockdown.
This year, however, the end of summer was more momentous than anything that happened during it. Just like thousands of other four- and five-year-olds across the world, the end of the summer saw my older daughter begin a brand-new adventure: school.
It is difficult to believe that we have reached this milestone already. Almost without my realising it, the baby, toddler, and pre-school years have slipped away, and my little girl has now embarked on the first steps of a journey through education which will take her to the cusp of adulthood.
For months, I told everyone who asked that she was ready for school, that she would be one of the oldest in her year, that she had been at pre-school for two years and was eager for a new challenge.
I wasn’t wrong: she is already well settled in her new routine and trots into the playground every morning without a backwards glance. But none of that knowledge stopped me from sobbing my way to work on her first day as I mourned the end of the first part of her life even as a whole new world of learning and opportunity opened up before her.
Like every other parent I have experienced some seemingly endless days – and nights – over the past five years. I have had days of sickness, days of total exhaustion, and days where the hour from 3-4pm has seemed to have 6000 minutes in it rather than the usual 60.
Yet somehow it also feels like no time at all since my little girl was a tiny, pink and wrinkly bundle swaddled tightly in my arms for the very first time.
Perhaps it is no wonder then that I feel a deep sadness that we have come to the end of a period in our lives together when all that mattered was each other.
It hurts that there will be no more weekly ‘mummy’ days together where our schedule consisted of mornings spent playing in our pyjamas, reading books, and maybe a trip to the local park.
Instead, I now begin my days off by negotiating the school run, trying desperately to make sure that an ill-timed toilet trip or missing soft toy doesn’t prevent us from making it out of the door on time.
Yet, when I see my little girl dressed up in her school uniform, when she excitedly tells me that she has learned a new letter or how to write the number ‘4’, or when she reveals that she was awarded a sticker for being the best at tidying up, I am prouder than I have ever been.
I can’t wait to hear her read for the first time and attend her first school nativity play. I am sad for what has finished but I am so excited for what is to come.
Parenthood is full of these extreme contradictions. It hurts when our children grow up, yet it is also what we want most of all.
A part of us would love our children to continue to need us the way they do when they are little and yet it is only when our children are brave enough to make their own choices, travel the world, and even have a family of their own, that we dare to believe we might have done a good job.
This summer, I have been haunted by the memory of the desperate, anxiety-filled night I endured before my little girl was born, when her birth was not going to plan and I was helpless to do anything about it. I know beyond a doubt that in those terrible moments – easily the worst of my life – I would have given anything to know that in five years time she would be happy, healthy, and starting school.
I also know that my job is far from over. As a high school teacher, I often look at my pupils and wonder if their parents realise how much they are still needed by the often highly insecure teenagers in front of me as they try to navigate the many trials of our social media-soaked modern world.
I still have a small child at home. My older daughter starting school means that for two days a week I now have uninterrupted time with my three-year-old: a princess-loving daddy’s girl who is much more of an enigma to me than her big sister.
My house seems very quiet when we arrive home, just the two of us, after the school run but for the first time we are slowly finding a routine of our own.
After three years of navigating life with two children constantly in tow, I am discovering how much easier it is to be spontaneous with just one and I can already see the benefits of this extended time together. Those little arms are being wrapped just a little more tightly around my neck.
Of course, this new normal will not last. In two short years it will be the turn of my younger daughter to start school and once again I’ll be crying into my morning coffee.
However, I now know that just as it has this time, our family life will simply morph into something new, something which will of course bring with it the sadness of an ending, but also the promise of so much still to come.
I just can’t wait to find out what.
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