‘You can go now,’ the child care teacher says to me as she nods toward the door.
My heart sinks.
It’s my daughter’s first day in care and we’ve only been there about 10 minutes. My pre-schooler is skipping around excitedly looking at all the new toys and saying hello to her new friends.
This is not how I had imagined things. Where are the tears and clinging? I’d planned to spend most of the day helping her to settle in. When I did eventually leave, I thought she’d be sad to see me go.
I was also expecting joy and elation at my newfound freedom; that my former identity would be waiting for me on the other side of the childproof gate — the identity that got chucked out with the placenta, the one that had a reason to where lipstick and spontaneously did things for herself just because she could.
I have been fitting my work and social life in between the tiny cracks of mothering for three years. I love being a mother but I’ve been looking forward to this day for months — when my daughter would start child care and I would get a day off — a whole one, just for me.
But my old self wasn’t anywhere to be seen. All that was waiting for me was a sense of emptiness.
I batted back the tears until I made it to the car, drove around the corner so I was out of sight, pulled over to the side of the road, and sobbed.
What was I crying about? Guilt? Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to feel when we take our kids to childcare? And I can do guilt. Guilt moved in next door to me just after I conceived and she pops over daily to borrow a cup of sugar and a slice of my soul.
But as I wiped my tears away I realised that I wasn’t feeling guilty. It was much worse than that; I was feeling redundant. For the first time in years, nobody needed me today. I had no bodily fluids to deal with, no sleep to plan for, no reason to sing all 67 verses of the Wheels on the Bus.
I’d struggled with having my identity reduced to ‘just a mother’, and giving up the structure of a workplace, adult conversation and the freedom to do what I want when I want. And here I am being given a little piece of myself back and I don’t know what to do with it.
I feel even more distress when I realise I don’t have anybody to call. All my mother friends are busy with their kids and suggesting a play day without a child would just be weird. I think back to all the people I used to call before I became a mother, and realised what a lousy job I’ve done of keeping in touch. I’ve barely had time to return their calls in three years and when I have, I’ve been distracted by building Mr Potato Head and extracting squashed banana from the mat. And my daughter’s hair. And my hair. And my clothes.
Before I became a mother a friend told me that I’d have to learn to do three things at once. And I have; you should see the way I can construct a sentence while colouring in the Cookie Monster and catching the glass of water being knocked off the table.
But we actually need to do four things. We also need to reinvent ourselves every time our children pass through a new phase of development and need us in different ways.
We start out by giving everything, including every inch of our bodies and every moment of our time, to the point where there is almost nothing of our former selves remaining.
But then the day comes that our gift of ‘everything’ is no longer required. It stings like rejection and it’s terrifying because we can’t remember how to be anything else. And then comes kinder, school, ‘I don’t know when I’ll be home’, and finally, ‘I’m moving out.’ And each time we will lose ourselves and then have to find ourselves all over again.
Most of the time we go through this process alone when nobody is watching. We are stoic, delighted even, because we know that every step our children take towards independence is a job well done. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.