“But why won’t anyone play with meeee?”
Parents taking their kids to new schools this week know what I am talking about.
The nervous tugging at the jumper; the oh-so-casual pose struck in a corner, well away from everyone else who seems to know everyone else; the discreet staring while pretending to be interested in that fascinating tree over there.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s the first day at a new school.
And it was my nightmare this week.
My two girls were fine, of course. The eldest strode off bravely into her new, huge, suburban school, holding her own, with a fabulous top-knot, among the gaggles of long-legged girls, all giggling and chatting as they walked past the back-to-school traffic jam snarling this middle-of-nowhere road. At her new primary school, the youngest stood mournfully watching a tennis-ball-football match for a while (but I think she was just wondering why they didn’t bring a football), and then found her new friends for a weird, high-octane game of forced hugs.
But what about meee? There I was, a newbie Mum, with no one to talk to. It doesn’t help that I seem to be older than all the other Mums. I pretended to read urgent emails on my phone (I don’t have a job and really, I was looking at Twitter and a story about why Keira Knightley has had to wear wigs, and wondering whether it was time to go gracefully grey before my hair begins to fall out, more). I tried discreetly to catch people’s eyes, but they were resolutely staying in their cliques. I looked for other lone wolves: but they were all men in their 20s, and I just couldn’t see how that conversation would start, never mind end.
You question everything when you are alone on the side of a busy playground. Had I dressed down too much? Should I have put on some make-up (this as I sized up a Mum in a floor-length skirt, with a thigh high split, and beautiful black shoes that I would only ever even consider wearing if I was looking for a snog, and I don’t do that anymore!)? Were people put off by my accent when I called out to my daughter?
Even my daughter ignored me. Actually, she told me firmly before we left the house that I was under no circumstances allowed to hug or kiss her in the school environs. “Do all your hugging at home,” she said, not budging despite my best downturned pout. She’s nine. I got a fist-bump out of her in the school hall but only cos I stood in front of her, and swore on my writing career that no one could see us.
Her 12-year-old sister was even more adamant. We were allowed to walk her to the turnoff to the school, but there was to be no touching, no hugging, no kissing (this was clearly underlined, even though it was a verbal instruction), and no waving. And certainly no entering the school premises.
In a moment of abject humiliation at the primary school, my nine-year-old broke away from her new friends, wandered over to me (well, close enough to allow me to hear her urgent whisper), and said, “Why aren’t you making friends, Mummy?”
So I wandered home, a little bereft, a little bruised.
You’d think I’d be delighted and excited to have our new house to myself, finally. I can eat cereal all day if I want (that’s just a random example, of course I would never do that. What do you mean there are no more Rice Krispies?). I could go to bed for hours, slide down the bannisters, or veg in front of endless reruns of Mad Men.
I could do that, if I didn’t have a novel to deliver by December, and that book is full of noisy people who just won’t leave me alone, damn it! Always with the backstories, and the questions: Why did I do that? Why would I say that? I would never go there! What are you doing to me?
But today, I knuckled down and gave them some quality time. Usually, I would do … well, anything really, before settling down at the computer, especially when the book is still just the faintest shadow of a ill-formed, half-glimpsed dream that I might or might not have had one wine-soaked night. And God knows, I have really good excuses to procrastinate — boxes not unpacked, floors not hoovered, dust so thick it seems a shame now to disturb its peaceful slumber. There is even ironing to do, for heaven’s sake.
But I had another reason to throw myself into Dublin’s underworld, and the struggles of my main character, a young Rwandan. Writing a new novel is the worst thing in the world, unless what you’re thinking about is worse. (And unless, of course, it’s one of those days where it’s the best thing in the world, but for every day like that, there are the bridge days when you have to plod forwards, eyes down, never looking back, never thinking of the distance ahead — much like the way I did my measly 5-km run today).
What I was fleeing today was the realisation that my time as a mother is limited. The admonition not to kiss/hug/indulge in PDAs was no big surprise from the big girl, but that little part of my soul — where babies are always babies, but perfect now since they poo and pee alone and can speak — died a little when I heard it from my little one (I know objectively nine is not necessarily ‘little’ but I have always found numbers very subjective).
I remember scouring those early-day parenting books — yesterday it seems — for the secrets I just knew had to be hidden within: How to get my screaming child to sleep at 2 am, how to make nutritious and delicious meals using just raw carrot, how to stay sane when reading Each Peach Pear Plum for the 11-millionth time (with voices, of course). And don’t get me started on watching the Teletubbies with that evil, soul-sapping repetition in the middle.
I don’t know if there are books for this next stage — there probably are, but I’ve not got them. And to be honest, I wouldn’t read them if I had. This is bigger than a book. This is a tectonic shift: today, I am pretty sure I was tolerated, nay indulged, not needed.
You know when they say: be careful what you wish for. It seems to me this is another one of Life’s little ironies (oh, how I love her mischievous humour, that cheeky Life wan!). We spend all those early, sleepless, mad years, waiting for them to grow, urging them forward, cheering every milestone, dreaming of the day we will be able to pee alone, shower alone, go out together as adults, read two pages of a book (without pictures) in one go.
Now, I am there. I have reached the promised land, and all I want is a little hand in mine. Some people are never happy. But I feel like Life is just hovering on the edge of sadistic. I could be wrong but I am also hitting Middle-Age so I don’t think so.
All’s well that end’s well though. I bought a Victoria Sponge for after school, thus forcing the children to chat to me at the table or forgo cake; my nine-year-old beat me again at memory cards, and my 12-year-old chatted my ears off as I tried to get her to go to bed. They are still there, and I am still here, and we are finding our feet, every day, on a road that reforms itself all the time.