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I’m sat writing this in bed at 6.45am on Saturday, 13 months sober TODAY I just noticed. I’m gladly sacrificing my one weekly ‘lie-in’ (OK, I am lying in, but not sleeping). My husband and I get one lie-in each at the weekend, the other getting up at the usual daily 6.20am as dictated by our sweet, noisy, ever-reliable alarm clocks, Miss Nearly 3 and Mr. 5.
Two nights ago, I spent a couple of hours undertaking the type of task that I used to hate, but I now relish- emptying bags of all the clothes that my eldest, Mr. Nearly 13, has ever worn (that Mr. 5 is yet to grow into). These bags are labeled with things like “Boys’ clothes aged 6-7”, but invariably have a total mixture of sizes inside, because “Old Me” didn’t give a crap about cataloguing outgrown clothes. Admin tasks that made life easier for “Future Me” were not on any kind of priority list. In fact, sorting out piles of clothes would probably have required a glass of wine, because I loved wine. And hated any domestic task. So why the hell shouldn’t an empowered grown-up sip wine decadently whilst sorting laundry / loading the dishwasher / doing a tax return?
Digression. Sorry. I loved to use alcohol to take the edge off anything I didn’t want to do, or I felt stressed about. It started at university. A glass of wine while writing essays, to relax me enough to stop me rewriting every sentence 10 times until ‘perfect’, which was unfeasible because I left the work until the last minute after ensuring I’d researched thoroughly and gathered my resources. It worked- I got a First in my degree.
Back to the children’s clothes. I recently bought vacuum packs. I sorted all the clothes carefully into their correct sizes, packed them in the bags and got a childish thrill sucking the air out through the nozzle with the vacuum cleaner. I was so excited at how much the big bulky bags of coats and trousers reduced down to solid heavy lumps! I made my husband come and see! He raised his eyebrows at me, amused by my joy over my unlikely new hobby of sucking air out of clothes. Luckily Mr. Nearly 13 shared my vacuum-packing joy, so I felt a bit less of a twat.
While I was sorting through all the clothes my eldest baby had ever worn, I felt something sad and happy and tender flickering inside me. I held up certain T-shirts, reliving a specific memory or occasion of my boy, aged 7…. aged 9….. aged 10 ….. Was he really that little when he wore this brown and blue stripy one, I thought, surely that was only months ago?! And just as a small river of loss starts flowing through me, I think how, in 2 years, or 4 years, or 5, we’ll reopen the airless bag, and my Mr. 5 will be wearing these T-shirts. Possibly with less enthusiasm than he currently holds for his brother’s old clothes (at 5, he gets a thrill from knowing he’s wearing what belonged to his brother! At what age do hand-me-downs lose novelty value?!).
It occurred to me that, while drinking, I never wanted to touch, look at, or even consider the existence of my river of loss- that same river of loss that runs within ALL parents from the moment we pee on a stick …. until we die. As Elizabeth Lesser writes in her book “Broken Open”, “When you parent you fall in love with a person who is always changing into someone else, and who you know will leave you.” When I read this the other day, I thought, YES! This sums up exactly what I’m learning to accept. It has hit me this year as my eldest is entering adolescence (I’m still in denial about the smaller ones ever growing up though, obviously. It’s hard to imagine not being needed so desperately when you’re in the midst of potty-training and endless bedtime stories).
The past year I’ve caught myself crying numerous times at the thought that my first baby will probably leave home in 5.5 years for university / life. Crying at the knowledge that, currently, he is pretty much my favourite person to hang out with, watching films, cooking together, laughing about the younger ones’ cuteness and funny ways. And I’m one of his. He’s nearly my height (I’m threatening to start wearing 6 inch heels soon when he overtakes) and his feet are bigger than mine, but he’ll snuggle up to me like he always did when we watch TV, except now there’s hardly enough space for all the elbows and knees to curl up next to me on the small sofa. But I know the closeness of this relationship is on a timer. It has to be. It’s the natural law of things. I will and MUST let go of and lose my little best bud.
He’s got a light fuzz on his upper lip and his dad is buying him a shaver for his upcoming birthday. His speaking voice sounds lower suddenly, although he’s still singing as head chorister in church. He looks like an almost-teenager in real life, but in photos, he still looks like my little boy- it’s as if the adolescent, adult elements of his person are something you can only sense in his ACTUAL presence, and cannot be captured on camera yet.
I feel impending loss. I love seeing him grow into a young man, and I’m incredibly proud of him and grateful for him, but I am also grieving for the littler, squeaky-voiced version of him that no longer exists, except for in pictures and in my memory. The days of bedtime songs and stories are over, but he still likes me to say goodnight and turn out his light. We are in the dusk of his childhood. I suppose he knows it too.
While sorting the little T-shirts that once seemed like big T-shirts, I thought about how much, for me, drinking was about the denial of the ongoing beautiful loss that is parenting, and the smaller weekly loss that was sending my eldest son to his dad’s for the weekend when he was younger:
As much as I missed him, the missing was balanced in equal part with looking forward to the opportunity to go out and party, i.e. getting wasted on the Friday nights he wasn’t here. Not having to wait to open wine after work. Heading to the pub at Saturday lunchtime, because- why not?
Now I walk past his empty bedroom on the alternate weekends that he’s at his dad’s, and loss jumps unbidden into my throat… I hate knowing his bed is cold and empty, duvet and pyjamas lying rumpled as he left them Friday morning before school, rather than wrapped around him in his sweaty preteen sleep.
And suddenly I know this truth: I didn’t used to feel a guilty joy that he was away BECAUSE I could go out drinking. I WENT OUT DRINKING because he was away. And I didn’t want to be sad. I didn’t want to witness my feelings of loss. But to NOT witness the pain and loss of our children growing up and away from us is to do our love for them and THEIR love for us a disservice.
See the scissors below? The midwife gave these to my husband to cut the umbilical cord when Mr. 5 was born. I thought we’d lost them. But he took them out of his bedside cabinet to show me just as I started writing this post. Funny. I’m sat writing about metaphorically cutting the cord as a parent, and he happens to show me the scissors with which he LITERALLY cut our son’s umbilical cord. I haven’t seen this little pair of scissors in the past 5 years.
Let us not trivialise or anaesthetise our parenting. Parenting is a painfully beautiful process of letting go of our children. Parenting is the delicate and awesome extrication of one body and soul from our own.
Lesser describes parenting as “a career with the crazy-making job requirement of simultaneously surrendering to and letting go of someone you love, over and over and over again”.
And so when it gets painful? We keep going. We keep on not drinking, if drinking fucks us up. We keep loving. We surrender. We let go. And repeat. For the rest of our lives.