“Is it her first pair of school shoes?” the sales lady asks with a knowing smile. I nod, unable to get the words out for fear the tears will flow. She could probably sense I was going to be a crier before we’d even sat down. She must have noticed my eyes well up as soon as we walked through the door; the way I held tightly onto my daughter’s hand and the way I now sit with her on my knee, arms tightly wrapped around her. She must hear how my voice wavers as I tell my little girl how exciting it is to be buying her first pair of school shoes.
She returns with a selection of styles in my daughter’s size and a special book to fill in, to chart her first days at big school. ‘How did my baby girl get so grown up?’ I keep asking myself? All those clichés about how fast it all goes – they are all so true. The exact moment of her birth, my little 6lb 6oz daughter, so longed for and so instantly loved. The smell of her head. Her tiny hands and feet and that little stubby nose. It’s all so fresh in my mind. Yet here I am with an almost four-and-three-quarter-year-old, buying her first proper school shoes, trying my hardest not to let her, or her two younger brothers, see me cry.
She is so excited about starting reception class in September. She’s especially excited about having her lunch at school and has told everyone who will listen that she has a new lunchbox for her sandwiches to go in. A Frozen one; what else?
Everyone keeps telling me how ready she is to go. That she’ll enjoy it and thrive. They’re right; she will love it. She’s loved the pre-school nursery she has been attending every afternoon for the last year and a half (even though I hated her not being with me all day). She loved the private nursery she went to a day a week when I was working (even though on her first day I sat at home and did nothing but cry). She loves reading and writing and counting and adding up and letters and numbers and singing and colouring and making things. She’s friendly and kind and caring and sensitive and confident. I know she will be in her element.
So why, with two and a half weeks left until she starts big school, do I so badly want to press pause? I really don’t want the day to come when I have to leave her at her classroom at 9am and not see her for six and a half hours for five days of the week, 39 weeks of the year. I can’t even think about it without crying. How can it be that her teachers and classmates will see more of her during her waking hours than I will? I, her mother, who grew her inside me, fed her, watched her take her first steps, helped her learn to talk and so much more. I remember so well buying her very first pair of shoes in this same store, a tiny size 2E in pink. I still have them. How did we get here?
Someone said to me in the early days of motherhood that the best thing you can give your child is the gift of roots, but also the gift of wings. And this is my little girl flying off from the nest at the start of her own independent adventure. But just like Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia singing to her daughter as she prepares for her wedding, she is beginning to slip through my fingers. I am losing her to the education system. Our happy little daytime bubble of Little E, Little O, Baby I and me – hanging out, going to pre-school classes, running round the park for hours, getting covered in poster paint or cake mixture, even the crazy tantrums – is being thrown off balance and I don’t like it.
Friends with older children tell me I’ll soon get used to her not being there. Some of them tell me that September can’t come soon enough for them. They tell me it will be easier with two, rather than three all day, every day. Some mornings it will be just one, as Little O will be heading off to a playgroup a couple of mornings a week too. ‘It’ll be lovely to spend time just with Baby I,’ they tell me. And indeed it will. But it’s also lovely hanging out in our little gang, watching my children grow and the relationships developing between them. Little E and Little O make each other laugh like no one else can. They play games with rules that only make sense in their world. Baby I’s face lights up when his big brother and sister sing to him and his whole body shakes with laughter when they tickle him or play peepo. He can’t tell me yet that he will miss them – but I’m sure he will.
I’ve tried so hard to be present for as much of my children’s lives as I can. I work part time, doing as much as I can late into the evenings, so I can spend more of my days with them. It’s hard at times. And it’s tiring. But I know I made the right decision for our family. I feel lucky to have seen so much of their early years.
I worry. Too much, probably. Will she ask for help if she can’t open her lunch box? What if she doesn’t eat her food quickly enough and the dinner ladies hurry her out to play? What if she doesn’t understand something her teacher says? What if no one wants to play with her at play time? What if she gets picked on? I was bullied at school and it hurt so much. It would break my heart if the same happened to her. Yet I know I can’t cocoon her forever; that she’ll learn so many important life lessons at school.
She tries on four pairs of shoes, testing them out by walking around the store, a big smile on her face. She chooses a black pair with little flowers embroidered onto them. She insists on wearing them back to the car and as she skips out of the shop filled with excitement at the adventure that awaits her, I take a deep breath and know that she mustn’t see me cry. I want her to be strong and confident and a good decision maker and to learn all the things she needs to know to be successful, independent and happy. I’ve helped her get so far, but she needs to know it is okay to take this next step without me there.
And as much as every inch of me will ache when I drop her off on that first day, as much as I don’t want this precious pre-school time to end, I know how lucky I am that my baby girl is able to wear those shiny new black shoes in the first place. That she is well enough and we are fortunate enough for her to be going to reception class, as not every child can. Yes, I will miss her, and I know there will be tears, but I will be so proud to see her take those independent steps into the world on her own. And as much as I don’t want time to go any faster than it already is, I’ll be eagerly counting down to home-time from the moment she waves goodbye.
What about you? Are you dreading waving off your child for their first day at school or are you eagerly counting down until September? I’d love to hear your thoughts either in the comments below, on the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page or you can tweet me on @cardiffmummy