Five years ago my husband and I built a six-bedroom house. After years of stacking kids two deep per room, we graduated from lower middle class to the ripening affluence of a family where everyone had their own bedrooms.
John and I finally had a room with a door, instead of the gypsy stylings of the red velvet curtain we used to partition the lounge room where we tried to make ‘adult space’. Many the failed attempt at a sneaky root was launched there, only to be aborted on the appearance of the silhouette of a child demanding toast or water or money. We finally had our family home, but alas, a little too late. We really only had three years of all five of them in there at once.
Delicious years ruined by adolescence and their yearning to get the fuck away from us. Over the next few years John and I ferreted away enough money to put in the pool the kids have wanted for 20 years, the punchline to that oft-repeated refrain ‘Can we get a pool, can we get a pool, can we get a pool?’. Well we get a pool and they all fuck off. The family of seven is down to four. In one month’s time, three of the rooms will sit empty when the girls all make their way overseas on individually planned six-month trips. One tells me she’s planning on moving to London permanently.
Two of them have been coming and going for some time, but until last week it still kind of felt like they lived with us. Zoe left for London on Monday and I still haven’t been able to go into her room. I texted her that I couldn’t go in, told her that every time I look in there I start crying, to which I received the reply, ‘I’m not dead, Mum’. True. I’m being a bit over-dramatic. I was lying face down on the carpet holding her childhood snuggly toy weeping. I know I’m lucky, my kids are still very much alive, but something has shifted in my family, something has changed. They’ve grown up. And that part of my life, of our shared lives, is gone. It’s a memory now. It lives in photos, or stories, or Facebook feeds. It lives in boxes of birthday cards and broken toys shoved under beds or in the back of wardrobes. I mean, when do you paint over the ‘tall wall’?
The thought of the book closing on their childhood flooded me with regret. There was a whole lot of shit I didn’t do. Like canteen. And guided reading. I was going to teach them to sew and cook. Instead I showed them how to online shop, drink wine and talk shit. The girls don’t really need me any more. I know that’s good. That you want them to find themselves and make plans and follow through and make their own life. It’s just a bit weird and scary. You are supposed to want your kids to leave. Like it’s some sort of relief. Like you’ve been waiting for them to fuck off so you can get on with your own life, but having people need me is my thing. I keep them helpless on purpose. I do their washing. I make their beds. I take their plates to the dishwasher. Because I’m a martyr? Well, partly yes, but also because while I bitch and complain and tantrum about how much I do, how I do so much more than anyone else, and of course, how much better I am than them for doing more than anyone else, the truth is it makes me feel like what I do for them still matters.
It makes me feel like there are still invisible strings of interdependence that bind us. I never taught them to be completely independent because I feared that would make me redundant. Nothing prepares you for the aching of their absence and the strange painful joy of seeing them walk into the world as their own women. It’s a curious mix of grief and pride. I didn’t know this until about 12.30am on Tuesday when Zoe walked through the departure gates and I lost it. I am not talking a lone tear rolling down my cheek. I’m talking doubling over, gasping, crying. Shuddering. Sobbing. It was quite a show. She turns back and says, ‘Mum, I can’t leave you like this.’ But I push her away and say, ‘Go, Go’. Then I sob some more as she steps away, worried about me. About how I’ll cope. Which is ironic because initially I was crying about how she would cope and then I realised I was actually crying about myself. Perhaps I am the one vulnerable to the world, not her.
She’s a young woman now but I can still see the echo of the face she had as a baby, the face that looked to me for love and assurance that looks to me now for love and assurance once again. And I’ve got snot out my nose, my face is red and I look bat-shit crazy. Run, Girl! Run! And then she’s gone, my baby girl now a blip on my Facebook messenger. One down. Two to go.