These days, one of my resolutions as a mother is to stop doing for my girls and start teaching them how to do. When I’m tired and busy, like I almost always am, it’s easier to pick up that trail of toys and books and junk that leads from wherever they were to wherever they are, than it is to tell them to do it, and then wait while they huff and puff about it and put everything in some other place where it doesn’t belong, and then tell them to do it again, properly this time. It’s easier to get them that glass of milk than it is to age five years in five minutes watching them carry the heavy jug to the table and slop milk everywhere while seemingly tossing it in the general direction of the glass. It’s easier to make those ponytails in their hair than it is to try to direct their unaccustomed fingers in the complicated twisting and looping of the scrunchie. It’s easier to change the batteries in their toy than watch them fumble with the screwdriver and the plastic cover, and jam the batteries in the wrong way twice before they get it right. It’s easier to read the ingredients on the cereal box for them than it is to listen to them trying to sound out riboflavin and thiamine.
But parenting isn’t supposed to be easy all the time, right? These are things I’m supposed to be teaching Fiona and Bridget to do, and then standing back while they practice. Yes – but if it’s a choice between us being late again and me doing whatever-it-is for them just one more time, I’ll do it. Guilty as charged …. The other night, though, we weren’t going anywhere or even doing anything. There was time. Fiona asked if she could have her earrings changed. I said “no, you can’t have them changed – tonight, you’re going to do it yourself”. And, after a few ouchy jabs and some frustration, she did. Clearly proud of her efforts, she said “this is great, Mommy, I’ll know one more thing for when I leave you”.
For when I leave you. For when she leaves me. They’re going to leave me.
She said it so casually, not even looking at me, completely unaware that she had just given my heart a very tight squeeze. For a few seconds, I couldn’t respond. I stared down at the bathroom counter through a film of tears. Forcing them back into my head, I cleared my throat and said huskily “yes, that’s right – my whole job as your mother is to make sure you’re ready to leave me someday”. She was still examining her earrings in the mirror, her face serious and winter-pale so that her scattering of freckles stood out. Her dark eyelashes sweeping up and down, her silky blonde hair falling into her eyes from either side of her widow’s peak. Her bow-shaped lips pursed in concentration. Bridget was brushing her teeth. Her caramel-coloured locks pulled back in a messy ponytail, her dolphin forehead, her dark eyelashes making shadows on her baby-round cheeks, her cartoon-animal brown eyes. Toothpaste foam all over her chin. Both of them wearing their thick, fuzzy sleepers. It had been an ordinary moment. Bedtime, the nightly routine for years now. Pyjamas, teeth-brushing, story, prayer, kisses and hugs. More kisses and hugs. Requests for water. Questions they could have asked any time over the past few hours, but it’s only now that they want an answer. Fiona’s sentence, though, changed my view of our evening. Suddenly, it all seemed precious – and fleeting.
After they were tucked in, I cried. I stifled sobs while making lunches for the next day, swiping tears from my cheeks before they could fall on the sandwiches. I don’t know why this hit me so hard. I know they’ll leave me someday. This is not news. I’ve known this since the first time I saw their red, wrinkled newborn faces. Somehow, though, in the everyday scramble of alarm clocks and meals and housework and shopping and school and daycare and the office and appointments and breaking up fights and doling out punishments and hitting milestones like targets in a pinball game …. I forgot.
Years from now, and those years will fly by – people who’ve been there and done that, and are now wearing the t-shirt, love to tell me that – my house will be quieter and cleaner. Shopping and meals will be for two. Much less complicated, and less expensive, too. Nobody negotiating with me for three carrots and two cookies instead of five carrots and one cookie. No schlepping them from school to daycare to activities to playdates to birthday parties. Walking across parking lots will mean heading toward the entrance of a building, free hands swinging – instead of a death grip on one small hand, while watching with a tight throat as the other kid practices her street smarts. Bedtime will mean getting myself ready for bed, and no one else. There won’t be any questions manufactured for the sole purpose of staving off lights-out. No homework remembered at the last minute. In some ways, this will be lovely. I’ll be able to read and write as much as I want, and my time will be truly my own for the first time since Fiona was born. But what if the cacaphony of day-to-day life with kids is actually the background music? I guess I won’t know til it’s switched off …. you know, when they leave me.