‘Mum, you don’t need to hold my hand when we cross the road. I’m 13,” my daughter told me as we waited at a crossing. After as many years as mother and traffic warden, reaching for her hand is so instinctive I didn’t even realise I’d done it until I felt her shake it free of mine.
Ask a mother of teens and, most likely, she will be able to tell you exactly when her child announced that he would be taking the bus to school from now on, or that she would prefer to go into the Sportsgirl changing room alone, or that bedtime need not involve a chapter of something read aloud and a little back scratch through flannel pyjamas. Also, no flannel pyjamas.
These are the turning points, the tiny little heartbreaks that are a certain part of motherhood. From birth, our children are moving away from us but the pace seems to quicken with every birthday. After tying so many laces, quartering so many apples and snipping so much spaghetti into lengths less likely to be choked on, all of a sudden we’re not required. We are made redundant in stages which can be terrifying.
Or glorious. After all these years, we’re suddenly not needed! They can chop their own apples, tie their own shoelaces and if we forget to buy spaghetti on the way home, they can be sent back out to buy it.
I had my daughter at 25, three years after I got married. I had a ring on my finger in my last term of university and went from my parents’ home to my married home without living elsewhere.
Occasionally, lying awake, I run the numbers. Soon, I will have been married for half my life. At 39, I have been responsible for little lives for more than a third of my own. Two of my closest friends have just had their first babies at 40, and the year they become kindergarten parents I will be staring down the prospect of an empty nest. I wonder constantly what will it be like to be an adult with few responsibilities, an individual with no one relying on me, for the first time.
Motherhood is all-consuming for everyone, but my version of it, coming so early in my life, has felt total. I have been out of sync with my peers since the beginning, and I’ll still be out of sync at the end. In the company of women my age, I’ve always been the odd one out.
We lived in London when my daughter was born, away from family. When my husband was at work, there was no one to hand her to when she wouldn’t stop crying. I never met another mother close to my age. I didn’t know I was allowed to leave the room when she slept, so I would station myself beside the crib, with a book and a slowly tightening bladder, until she woke up.
The crib was second-hand, pushed into a corner of our bedroom. Because I couldn’t give her a proper nursery, new things – there wasn’t money for them – I felt like the only thing I could give her was my entire self. All of my time, all of my attention and focus, which meant not returning to work.
I did try, arranging a tour of the only childcare centre in our undesirable neighbourhood, but it turned out to be a single room on the basement floor of a dark, crumbling terrace presided over by a near relative of Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. There were bars on the window.
I tightened my hold on my daughter and heel-spun on the bottom stair. That was it. I stayed at home. After another daughter, now 11, I’m still home, working but unlikely ever to go back to what I think of as the “real thing”.
My friends, the 40-year-old first-timers, have so much more wisdom and money and help than I had at the equivalent point. I envy their smooth transitions back to work, that they somehow just know that you are allowed to leave the room when the baby sleeps. Most of all, I envy how careful they are to make sure their individual selves aren’t lost under a pile of folded onesies.
For so long I believed I had done it all wrong, cramming so many major life events into the first half of my 20s. Except for this one thing – unlike my friends just setting out, I have time. It’s been a revelation, a great burst of freedom and that burning, pent-up ambition that mothers often feel has finally been released.
As my daughters meander home from school by themselves, I finish a magazine story, make another cup of tea and sit back down. It has worked out, more or less, as it somehow does for all of us, no matter which way we’ve done it.
There are moments when I wish my children weren’t quite so independent, that I was more essential to their daily lives. But even then I have this consolation: the other day, my mother and I went out for lunch, and as we waited to cross to our parked car, she reached out and took my hand. I don’t think she noticed, but I did. And I realised I’ll never quite let go either.
You Be Mother by Meg Mason (HarperCollins) is out now.
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