‘Someday sooner than is tolerable I will look down and see no small hand in mine’
Another first day at another new school. Practice does not make it easier
Definitely, unequivocally: this time I’m walking to the door with a small hand in mine knowing this is my last first day at Montessori. Photograph: E+/Getty
You’d think I would be used to it by now. Another first day at another new school. In the car on the way there, I count the times I’ve done this. This will be the seventh. Practice does not make it easier.
There were two first days at a Montessori in Dublin. First one, then, in a blink, the other. The second time the big girl held her small brother’s hand, and I held my breath as I walked away. He was two and she was a much more worldly three, and she had this first-day thing down.
A heartbeat later Montessori was over for the big girl, and in its place was a sprawling primary school, with a yard so big I didn’t know how I’d ever find her at pick-up time. I held my breath again and she held her shiny new backpack until we found the small, cheerful blonde in the seat beside her who would become her very best friend, and I knew she would be okay.
Her heart was sad. I couldn’t fix it, so I held my breath for days, for weeks, until eventually there were new friendships, new games of fairies or cops and robbers
Then our family moved to Sydney, and stumbled into another first day. Pigtails and pinafores gave way to wide-brimmed hats, gingham dresses and shorts. Little lunch became morning tea; the yard became the blacktop. The boy, still tiny, was outraged that the older children called him cute. The big girl came home with stories about the child who pushed all her pencils off her desk, and the other child who wouldn’t let her play fairies. Her heart was sad. I couldn’t fix it, so I held my breath for days, for weeks, until eventually there were new friendships, new games of fairies or cops and robbers.
A year later another move to another continent, another set of first days. At an elementary school in California morning tea became recess; the blacktop became the playground; the school anthem became the pledge of allegiance. Cops and robbers became hot lava monsters; games of fairies became complex loom-band projects.
The baby started preschool in the home of a beautiful Persian couple, who loved her like she was their own granddaughter. Under their gaze she stopped being a baby and became a small girl. When we told them we were leaving everyone cried. We were going home, we said, even though the small girl had never lived here at all.
And so, a year ago, there was another first day at another primary school in rural Ireland. The older children are back among people who call a yard a yard and a spade a spade. The big girl, whose heart is never sad any more, has taken us aside and made it known that she has found her school, and is not moving again.
I try to make the seconds slow, but she’s barrelling ahead as always, in her new blue runners
And now it’s the youngest’s turn.
Her first day at Montessori. Another first, but it feels different somehow.
This time I’m walking to the door with a small hand in mine knowing this is definitely, unequivocally my last first day at Montessori. I try to make the seconds slow, but she’s barrelling ahead as always, in her new blue runners. Can I run, she asks, her favourite question. Whatever is coming, it can’t come fast enough for her.
This time is easy, as first times go. We put the backpack in the cubbyhole, and get the sticker with her name on it, and have a discussion about whether to start with dinosaurs or colouring. She surveys the room and decides on a seat by the window, where she gets to work.
“I’m not going to do it red. I’m going to do it rainbow,” she announces. Then she looks up, surprised that her two older siblings and I are still there, hovering.
“Bye-bye,” she says, firmly, and returns to her colouring.
I should be relieved. I should be happy. Yet I’m bereft. I know I won’t be doing this again
I should be relieved. I should be happy. Yet I’m bereft. I know I won’t be doing this again. The tiny yellow hat that broke my resolve the last time I was certain I wasn’t having any more babies is packed away in a box in a storage unit. I am 42: when it comes out again it won’t be for my own child.
I held my friend’s beautiful five-week-old recently and met her serious gaze and smelled her freshly-baked-bread smell and realised I’ll never again inhale my own child’s new-baby smell. I’ll never again teach my own child how to wash their hands or count to 10. It’s a good problem to have, I know.
But it still feels strange that nobody will ever need me again with that relentless, all-consuming, suffocating, terrifying need. When they were tiny babies I regularly wanted to run away from that need. Now I want to run towards it.
Already the small girl needs me a little bit less. She can peel her own banana, put on her own coat, stay in her own bed all night. She figured out the rules of first days all by herself. She’s about to start finding out about friendships and sad hearts, and I won’t always be able to fix it.
Someday soon, much sooner than seems possible or remotely tolerable, I will look down, and there will be no small hand in mine. I’m not ready.