- 16 February, 2022
She kisses me goodbye on the corner, and I stand on the pavement watching as she skips into school, her ponytail bouncing, each stride of her long legs taking her further away from me, further from the empty arms hanging uselessly by my sides.
My first baby has just turned nine, and this is how it is now. Almost a decade into motherhood, I’m standing at the end of the street, watching from the outside in. Teetering on the oh-so-fine line between being needed and… not.
It’s true what the old ladies tell you as your newborn screams for a feed in the coffee shop or you unsuccessfully wrestle your toddler into the boots she’s kicked from the shopping trolley for the umpteenth time: “It goes by so fast.” It’s true what the more experienced mums say as the teacher untethers your crying five-year-old from your leg outside the classroom and you fight back tears: “It won’t be like this forever.” It’s true what your parents tell you as they watch their grandchildren flail wildly on their roller skates in the driveway: “These days will fly by.”
Of course, it feels like the opposite when you’re in it, but now I watch from a block away as my girl greets her friends, their little heads bent together in an exchange of words and secrets I can’t hear, and I feel its truth settling into my bones.
I stand alone on the street corner, kids whooshing past me on both sides, and crane my neck to get a final glimpse of her, arms linked with a friend, disappearing into the school building. I watch the space where she was, still pulsing where her small, strong body displaced the air, and then – nothing more to see – I turn and make my way home.
How different the landscape of my life looks now – the view from here bears so little resemblance to the one nine, eight, or even just two, years ago. In what feels like an impossibly short space of time my job description has altered almost unrecognisably. When I started out shakily in the role nine years ago, “motherhood” involved being centre of their world. The heroine of the act, the only thing standing between them and the mortal danger that lurked around every corner – in every car park where drivers were looking for spaces instead of escapee toddlers; on every beach with waves and UV rays and strangers; in every bowl of uncut grapes. Life felt like a battlefield from which there was no respite, but I was the commander-in-chief.
Now, as my babies grow, the urgency of before has been replaced by something else. Something quieter, more still, less recognisable – and infinitely more complicated.
Although it hardly seems possible, life is actually busier now than it was in those early days in the trenches, but it’s a different kind of busy. No longer do my days consist of reacting to the pull of life-or-death requirements that are made of a mother of babies. No, now I think of myself more like a cruise director, steering the ship (except of course it’s a car) that contains our family from harbour to harbour, only to watch as my troops disembark to go and live their lives independently for hours at a time. They march alone from the car to their ballet lessons, pony riding, tennis club, birthday parties and play dates – clutching their bags, lunchboxes or wrapped gifts and shouting, “See you later mama!” over their retreating shoulders.
And I sigh to the empty car, clutch at the next hour alone, and prepare for the next manoeuvre.
The truth is, we the mothers of bigger kids still work just as hard as we once did – we’re still deep in the battle – but the work is less visible, a bit more stealth. Unlike a few years ago, we don’t have a pile of dirty nappies or sleepless nights to show for our labours, to hold out like an offering, a token of our sacrifice. Our work now is much less back-breaking, much more mundane, almost imperceptible.
Do our little ones even need us anymore? Alone on the street corner, in the car, on a bench outside the ballet studio, I wonder.
But wait. Those bags they clutch as they run off to their activities didn’t just magically materialise. They were packed lovingly by us – snacks and the right shoes for the occasion enclosed. Those gifts for the endless string of birthday parties chosen and wrapped. The arriving and being picked up on time happens because we make it so – often no mean feat with multiple children, but a delicate balancing act of split-second timing we execute like a magician’s sleight of hand in an empty room with no applause, except the one that echoes (or should) in our own minds, in time with the humming of the dishwasher at the end of another busy day.
I ponder this as I walk down the street without my nine-year-old. My arms empty, my head full of the next thing, and the next, and the next…
Because this is nine. And of course she still needs me – just in a different way.