The report this week about the rise of the “Peter Pan generation”, the 32% of adults aged 25-39 unable or unwilling to leave home, and lacking the basic skills to perform any chores may strike fear (or shame) into many parental hearts. Few of us should welcome the idea of having grown-up sons and daughters who are domestically incompetent, immature and unable to stand on their own two feet. However, like any number of women whose last child is in their last year at school, I have been going through a very odd time recently. On the one hand, I am aching to resume full-time work and see my children fly the nest as their and my ultimate achievement. On the other I feel a terrible sense of what I can only describe as grief.
This week, I have been turning out the “Art cupboard” in my home, where my children’s best drawings and compositions have been kept, greatly to their disgust. Seeing their first wild wobbles into painting, joined-up handwriting and poetry has brought the most lacerating emotion. I certainly didn’t, as my husband and I struggled through seven years of broken nights, bouts of illness, academic trials and the rest, think that I would ever look back on their childhood with quite such a feeling of sadness and loss. Yes, young children tend to be delightfully funny and pretty but how exhausting they were as well! Exhausted, bored and stressed, I often longed for my children to grow up enough to have a real conversation with them.
Eventually, I did; but much as I enjoy hearing their thoughts on gay marriage and Tudor history, what I didn’t realise was how much I’d miss all those other conversations. I miss the long, circular discussions about whether or not this particular pond in the park could be a suitable habitat for a dragon, or whether if they went high enough in a swing they could fly off into space, or what animal their daemon would be if they lived in Philip Pullman’s multiverse. I miss covering the kitchen table with paint and glitter, and Easter egg hunts and making dens. For every tantrum or food-strike or crisis there were such delights. It has become so fashionable to describe your frustration and unhappiness a la Rachel Cusk (A Life’s Work etc) that the intense bliss of a cuddle or baking a cake together or going for a walk through crisp autumn leaves gets overlooked.
Seeing their paintings, poems and stories made me realise just how much having children gave me the wholly unexpected gift of reconnecting me with my own childhood. It goes much deeper than nostalgia or sentimentality; as the focus in the Olympics Opening Ceremony showed, the British have a unique and celebrated intimacy with childhood as something essential to our nature. I have known people who were timid and shy become as brave as lions because they had to stand up for their child, or who have taken up musical instruments, swimming, riding and cycling to give their off-spring encouragement and support. Many have spoken to me about how the creativity of their children has redeemed an imaginative, creative side. For me, it felt like re-entering Narnia through the back door.
Yet rich and rewarding though this time is, it cannot and should not last. We are doomed to feel, as Helen Simpson wrote in her short story, Constitutional, “first wanted and needed, then not wanted and not needed.” If a parent does their job properly, a child will always want the power and autonomy of being adult. Looking through a glass darkly, even when it reflects so much that is fascinating and suggestive, loses its charm.
Maybe I am an eternal eight-year-old, as my children love to claim, but the sadness I feel is something I know is shared by many. For the past hundred years, children have been dressed and treated not as miniature, defective adults but as the blessed inhabitants of a special, pre-Lapsarian world with its own entertainments, clothes, furniture and knowledge. As in Susie Boyt’s superb new novel The Small Hours, (Virago) about a rich and damaged woman who attempts to heal the wounds dealt to her by her own inadequate parenting by starting an idyllic nursery school says, “Childhood isn’t a preparatory state, an antechamber to one’s real life which can be bargained away for later gains.”
We keep our children’s tiny shoes, their fading pictures and lumpy clay sculptures, to look at with a sense of profound loss which is almost a guilty secret. Every time I see a hollow tree of the sort which my children would once have played in, I feel a terrible pang even as I rejoice in them being tall, healthy, intelligent young adults who have survived to reach their physical peak. This sense of loss does not depend on whether you have defined yourself as a stay-at-home mother or whether you have had an interesting and demanding career: whether it’s reading aloud at bed-time, taking them to school or staying up half the night worrying because they haven’t yet come home from a party, it’s all a part of life that is coming to a close.
I am already conscious that I will miss my son’s school far more than he will next year. Once he goes to university like his sister, he will not be coming home, but coming back. Being progressively cut off from the intense, vivid world of a child’s life as your children grow up doesn’t, of course, compare with the actual loss of a child, but it is still a form of bereavement.
When people saw me with my children and said, “enjoy it while it lasts”, I used to be furious. How could anyone honestly enjoy what one of my characters described as “like being chained to a lunatic”? I loved them so deeply, and yet I also love my world of books and writers so deeply too. But my chains became old friends long ago; it feels so natural to cook supper at six o’clock or deal with a melt-down while trying to get on with work that not doing so feels as disconcerting as not wearing a watch. As freedom beckons for my peer group, the first for whom having a career was desirable as well as a necessity, we are puzzled by the way we feel now.
Maybe it is as Joanna Trollope said in Second Honeymoon, that “you spend all these years and years developing this great supporting muscle for your children and then they just whip round… and hack it through.” You don’t realise that you yourself have come to need this supporting muscle quite as much as they do, or even that it isn’t a muscle so much as a kind of special place in life which only lasts for a set period of time. I have spent twenty years of my life ensuring my children can not only read and write but can cook, clean, sew on a button, catch an aeroplane and manage their finances. They are taller, stronger, healthier and better-educated than I. But as they prepare to launch themselves like birds into the air, I can’t help hoping that this isn’t the end; that, like Peter Pan, they might come back just for a couple more years.
Yes, I have a dog; but he isn’t, of course, a child. I also have a husband who has been waiting to go travelling to all the places that we felt we couldn’t venture before. Of course Peru sounds fascinating; of course it would be fun to go one day: but right now, I just want to go back to Narnia.
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I got round this when first daughter grew up by having another - with an 18 yrs gap between. This younger daughter is now 16 and growing up far too fast but it's easier to see it happen this time round.
Oh Amanda, How this hurt! Am I still going to go on buying children's books for the age range below my youngest daughter? I haven't stopped yet (just bought Sharon Creech, Love That Dog) .. and my elder sister still buys Blue Kangaroo books, at 63. It's a terrible sense of loss. I was conscious at the time that my children's childhood allowed me to give them, and allowed me to join in, something I had never had; and it was a world that is so powerful and so delightful. And as someone who has never really grown up, I am being left behind again, without companions. I took up teaching English Lit to English/Danish children (we live in Denmark currently), partly so that I could continue to have access to real live children who needed me and could enter that world. Teaching is a good way of keeping the door open, subject to avoiding state frameworks. So many mothers will feel as one when they read this. Why not put it in print? And a PS: Why no Tim Bowler on your recommended list? Do you not like him? I think Starseeker is one of the most wonderful books I've read for years - and I'm pretty keen on Blade, too. The last book, Blade above the lake and the house on that winter night, waiting to do what he has to do, lives with me weeks after reading it.