Our son’s off to camp this week. He went last year, and he’s stayed at friends’ many times, but this morning’s farewell pulled at my heart more than others. It doesn’t make sense. He’s eleven this year, nearly as tall as me. He swims, plays soccer, does his homework well, or not. He argues with his parents. I spend our time together nagging him, to clean his room, to wash the dog, to answer when I call him. But today, he’s gone, and I feel it keenly.
Our son’s job in life from here is to separate from his parents and ours is to let him go. It’s bittersweet watching your child grow strong and independent. I’m so proud of him, and yet, I miss the small boy he was. I want them both to stay. I have a photo of the small boy, on the beach with me, silhouetted in the late afternoon light. We’ve stopped to look at something, a pipi in the sand, an odd shell we’ve found, and we’re both bent towards it, absorbed in the moment. When I look at the picture, I notice we stand the same way, feet poking out, just as I notice, in other pictures, how much he is his father’s son. And yet, he’s his own person, more and more.
Soon after the picture was taken, our son started kindy. He was very upset in the first days to be without the people he knew. I talked to friends, many of whom remembered their own first weeks at school or kindy as traumatic. One said she was sure it had done long-term damage. Another, a teacher, said it was no big deal. A friend with four kids said to take it slowly. We decided to do what we could to make the transition easier. I told him we’d arrange for the kindy teacher to ring me if he felt too upset to stay for the whole day. I then told the teacher, who was very experienced with young children, the same thing. I can remember the look on her face. If she’d had a sign that said “overinvested, overprotective mother,” she’d have used it right then. But all she had was the look, which was clear enough. And she did call me, several times, and I went and picked him up and brought him home. And so it went.
But as weeks went by, I worried our son would never settle in, that I was the overinvested mother the kindy teacher thought I was and I’d made a terrible error. One day, the teacher went further. She told me I’d have to let go of the apron strings eventually or he’d never grow up. And then, after a couple of months, he said he liked kindy and stopped asking to come home. From kindy, he went to school, without a hitch. He has never looked back behind him to check if someone’s there. On good parenting days, I like to think that’s because he knows they’re there, his overinvested mother, his father, should he need them. But I can’t be sure. As parents, I’m starting to understand, we never really know if what we’re doing is the right thing. There is no ten in this job. Only good-enough, and often I think that’s beyond me.
I do know that this morning our son climbed aboard the bus for camp without even a goodbye – there hadn’t been time – and he waved down at us grinning. Yesterday he was that little boy on the beach who didn’t think he’d manage kindy and today, he couldn’t wait for the world to come up and meet him. We waved too, his father and I, the lunatics on the footpath outside school.
I’m going to enjoy the days I have without responsibility for an eleven year old. I’m going to eat adult food, see a movie, and do what I like. And when he gets back, I’m going to overinvest a little more, I think, treasure the moments I have left with him, maybe even nag less, listen instead. Because this is the thing. You blink and the moment’s gone; he’s someone else entirely and you’re still standing on the beach with your feet poking out.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 1 November 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!