Jennifer O’Connell: I’m in the parenting golden age. So why do I feel sad?
'We should have another baby, I announce. When he stops laughing, my husband reminds me that’s no longer an option'
“My household is about to enter, for a nanosecond, the golden age of parenthood.” Photograph: iStock
“Because a mother’s love is God’s greatest joke” Anne Enright wrote in The Gathering, in answer to the question I’ve been asking myself.
The brilliant, existential punchline is on me. My household is about to enter, for a nanosecond, the golden age of parenthood, the stage we’ve been working towards for nearly 12 years, a time we thought, during the countless hours of careful avoidance of the creaky floorboards as we carried one barely-asleep child back to bed after another, would never come.
We have three children, none of them yet teenagers, none of them any longer toddlers. The older ones are old enough to walk by themselves to the shops, smart enough to make points we can’t argue with, big enough to bring us French toast on trays on Saturday morning; small enough to want to. The youngest is leaving Montessori to start big school. She can dress herself, wash herself, stand up for herself. She can climb to the top bunk, even if she can’t quite get back down. I should be celebrating. This, as everyone keeps telling me, is the dawn of a new age of independence, possibility, frequent lie-ins. So why do I feel sad?
Like any sensible person who has spent 12 years at the frontline of emergency midnight trips for Calpol, my husband is ready for the next phase. I’m not
I try to recall the person I was a decade ago: insensible with exhaustion; uncertain about everything; aching for the day when these small humans who had really done nothing wrong except end up in my care and love me furiously, could just be reasonable; occasionally locking myself in the bathroom for the pleasure of a few minutes of not hearing anyone say my name. I don’t actually want to be her again. And yet. And yet.
I sit on a tiny chair in the Montessori classroom, and watch my child forget the words to It’s A Small World. This is the last time I’ll sit in a room like this and listen to a song like this mangled by a child of mine. I feel a surge of something familiar, utterly unexpected, and alarming.
We should have another baby, I announce as we depart the Montessori leaving concert. When he stops laughing, my husband reminds me that’s no longer an option, since his lunchtime visit to the kindly and efficient Dr Bob in Los Gatos a few years ago. Besides, he says, I’m too old. He means that I’m too old.
A puppy then, I try.
Goodbye, he says, getting in his car and driving slightly too fast in the direction of his office.
Like any sensible person who has spent 12 years at the frontline of fights over asparagus, and laundry mountains, and emergency midnight trips for wet wipes or Calpol, and negotiations with small humans inconsolable that they have been forced to wear the wrong socks, he is ready for the next phase. I’m not, I tell him later. My head knows it’s time. But my heart wants to press reset.
Maybe you’ll never be, he says reasonably. But we’ll have to stop sometime. And that time is now.
He’s right, I concede. Just to frighten him, I leave my phone open on a webpage about vasectomy reversals.
I canvass friends and discover that yes, I am mostly alone in this. The ones whose children are already in their teens assure me my desire to keep repopulating the world will be curbed once I understand the full horror of what I have already created. Others, also in the twilight zone between toddler and teen, spell out the benefits – the sleep, the uninterrupted meals, the household full of reasonable, likeable people. Those who still have small babies gaze with frank and undisguised horror. Why, they say. Why would you even think something like that?
The thing is, I try to explain, I’m finally in the swing of it. I know lots I didn’t know a decade ago: how to get a baby carrier on with one hand without dropping a squirming nine-month-old. The miraculous helicopter hold that is guaranteed to silence a screaming newborn. (Email me.) The killer lines guaranteed to quieten an interfering busybody. The best way to peel a butternut squash (don’t) or to get a toddler to give up a soother. The fact that it all passes much too quickly, and when it does, you won’t be ready and you’ll wonder why no-one told you. Even though you know absolutely everyone did.
There’s nothing else we spend years of our adult lives learning how to do – reading all the books, pumping friends for information, watching One Born Every Minute as though the secret of the universe is buried in the bottom of the midwives’ biscuit tin – in the full knowledge that we will wake up one day and it will all be redundant, and that will be a good thing. It’s no wonder some of us graduate from clueless parent to interfering busybody faster than you can say ‘that child should have a blanket on’.
One friend understands. I felt exactly like that a while ago, she says, but it passed. Then she pats her growing belly, like a parent tapping a fireguard to warn an approaching child of the dangers that lie beyond.