And there he goes, my older son. Traipsing up the hill towards his future. His blond curls are bobbing around jauntily on his head. His face is bright and expectant (his mother is bedraggled from lack of sleep, bringing up the rear with the baby in a back-carry like some hunchback, but we’ll get to her in a moment).
With his backpack, baseball shirt and cargo pants, the boy could be going anywhere: sixth-form college; an All Saints reunion concert; to find himself on Koh Samui before he enters the workforce. Each of these thoughts is like an arrow to the chest and I bend over at the bottom of the hill, momentarily winded.
“Come on, Mummy,” my son calls. “You are not a tortoise.”
My son is right. I am not a tortoise. And he’s not off to Koh Samui yet – because he is three years old and today is his first day at preschool.
“Let’s get going,” he tells me, encouragingly.
Apparently, he is looking forward to it. I am decidedly not looking forward to it. In fact, it feels as though I have spent my entire life to date, even though I’ve only been a mother for three short years, dreading this very moment. For precisely no reasons that will sound rational if I detail them here.
But I will try: he used to be mine. My little boy. I made him with my body, I love him with my heart and, until now, I was in control of every aspect of his life. I mean, that’s why his clothes are cute, his hair is too long and he watches a lot of TV. Because I think all those things are great. For the last three years, I have been one of three prongs (the other two are his father and his nanny) governing his life and now we’re…. Outsourcing him? To the education system? It feels too soon. He feels too little. I don’t feel ready.
Look, I said it wouldn’t sound rational. Honestly, if it were up to only me, he’d probably still be breastfeeding and co-sleeping and living in a yurt and learning about the world through a) song and b) the art of batik. He’d only get packed off to school at 27 and that would be to a Montessori forest school for a total of 20 minutes a day. Which might not be the best way.
And, much as I hate to admit it, my son is ready. For most of his little life, he has been only vaguely interested in other children or structured games of any sort. He has stuck close to his father and me, and played little games of his own invention very happily on his own.
But, in the last year, he has suddenly become aware of other children. “Hello, want to play with me?” he will ask kids in the park and, when they leave, he says he’s sad “because all the friends have gone”. “SEE YOU AGAIN SOON!” he yells at other cyclists when I take him out on his learner bike. It’s definitely time for him to get in among it all.
“Look, Mummy, a pine cone!” He shouts. “And I found a lamppost!”
If it were up to only me, he’d probably still be breastfeeding and co-sleeping and living in a yurt and learning about the world through a) song and b) the art of batik
The preschool is five minutes from our house, but, because it’s his first day and I’m not sure how he’s going to deal with being left, I have prepared a list of things for him to spot on the way there and back. By the time we get to the school, we have ticked pine cones and lampposts off the list, as well as the neighbourhood black cat, a red car and a rhododendron bush blousy with fat pink flowers.
Finally, we tick off the blue doors of the preschool itself and enter the building. My son’s key worker greets us and divests my son of his bag and coat.
“Do you want to go and do the wake-up song with the other children?” she asks him.
He looks at me with big, suddenly watery eyes and clasps my hand.
“Are you coming with me, Mummy?”
Oh, God. My heart. Oh, Jesus.
“Baby,” I squat beside him, turn over the checklist, and point at a hastily doodled face that, now I look at it properly, resembles Gnasher from The Beano. “You see this? That’s Mummy. You hold on to this paper, because Mummy is coming to get you later.”
“Mummy is staying,” he insists, his bottom lip wavering. “My mummy is staying with me, please.”
“They all get a bit like this, first day,” the key worker tells me.
“Mummy loves you very much and, once you’ve played with the boys and girls, it won’t be long before Mummy’s here and we’ll all go to the park. It’ll be no time at all! Does that sound OK?” I stand up, my back creaking as the baby gurgles and yanks out fistfuls of my hair. “Herbie? Herbie?”
But he is gone. He’s gone into the preschool room with not a single backwards glance. I can hear him shouting, “Wake up! Wake up!” with the other kids. On the floor in front of me is his checklist, with a tiny shoe print directly over my cartoon face. A lump forms in my throat and I try to quell my hiccuping sobs.
“They get a bit like that, too,” says the key worker.
It’s starting to rain as I close the preschool gate behind me. As we walk away, I cuddle the baby closer and whisper, “At least I still have you,” kissing his puffy little cheek. But when I look at him, he’s trying to wriggle out of the carrier and waving excitedly at his brother through the window.
Oh, fine. Whatever. I’ll get a cat.