My son has just finished school. When he rang me to tell me he’d sat his last exam I was flooded with emotion. I felt relief that the HSC year was over, but also this deep sadness. When your kid finishes school there’s this profound sense of completion – not just of a curriculum but also of the parent’s journey. It’s like a reverse milestone. I could feel that chubby little hand that rested in mine on his first day slip through the mother grip as he runs forward into the world. An esoteric release as sudden and as brilliant as childbirth. 18-plus years ago he left the cocoon of my body. Now he’s leaving me again.
That’s the job description. My work here is done – and I only attended canteen twice. I’ve never been a ‘great’ mum. You know the ones I mean: the smiling and patient mums who are always at sports carnivals, running cake stalls at school fetes, or five minutes early at school pick-up. I was always late. Or I forgot completely. Charlie still reminds me of the time I didn’t pick him up – when he sat uncollected for nearly an hour – when I did remember, and came to fetch him I just said, ‘Sorry Charlie, I forgot you.’ He graciously closed the car door and quipped ‘The five words you want to hear from your mother.’ I laughed because it was a good joke and I knew he always ‘got me’.
A good part of my parenting hasn’t just been about my reprimanding my kids for their stuff-ups – it’s been about them forgiving me for mine. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve screamed and cried and been the mum who threatens to throw them out of the car if they don’t stop screaming and crying. I breastfed each of my kids until they were three, and I co-slept. Not from a commitment to attachment parenting, but because I couldn’t be bothered waking up five times a night to instill a routine. I took my kids everywhere; from live bands, to doofs, to stand-up gigs – because I didn’t have a backup plan and I wasn’t prepared to stay at home. I was that mum on the plane who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop her kids kicking your seat (if I was having a shit flight, then so could you). Sure, I’m a loving mum. I’m open-minded. I’m someone you can talk to. You can ring me at 3am in a crisis and I’ll rescue you. You don’t have to be a super achiever. I’m happy if you give it a crack. You can swear in front of me. I’ll look after you when you’re drunk. I’m there for the long haul, but I was never a mum who got overly involved. I was always the mum who waved as she drove past. The one answering emails on her phone at school assemblies as her kid gets an award.
I missed stuff. I was distracted. I’m a working mum – stuck in this treadmill of guilt that I’m failing both as a parent, and in my career. It’s hard to be amazing at both. I tried. I turned up a few times to help in guided reading during the kindergarten years. I remember trying to ‘act’ like a mum who was interested, but my eyes kept drifting towards the clock, wondering when the punishment of listening to someone else’s illiterate kid would be over. I was never on a school committee – the thought of spending hours debating the height that school socks should be worn made me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork. I do however have gratitude for those many parents who offered up their free time to steer the course of such momentous decisions while I sat on my deck drinking wine. And for all those parents who drove my boy to soccer, I am eternally grateful. Charlie was a talented player – I made one out of ten games; fortunately he lost the ones I attended, so I developed this cover story that I didn’t go because I was ‘bad’ luck. That’s how selfless I am. And how devious.
He was such a high-achieving kid that I was left wondering what I had done to deserve it. From what I can recall, not much. He made me look like Mother of the Year. The little boy whose seven-year-old heart I broke when I told him I was leaving his dad, when I told him, at age eight, that he wasn’t allowed to leave school to follow his dream to be Justin Bieber – he is now ready to take on the world. My kind, intelligent, funny young man; the greatest feminist act I never actually achieved. He did it. But I’m happy to take the credit.