Pictures from a lifetime

25th July 1997 at 01:00
As school-leavers around the country set out into the worlds of work or university, one mother reflects on her daughter's childhood

My baby has flown the nest. That summer evening in the late Seventies when I first saw her dark eyes staring at the world seems like yesterday. The early photograph albums have begun to disintegrate and the shelves are stuffed with all the subsequent packs of pictures which no one ever finds the time to edit and arrange.

The memories are characterised by apocryphal?? events. My horror at finding a nasty nappy, only to be reassured by the health visitor that banana comes out that way. The irony in an ideologically non-competitive household when she returned from infant school in tears after the first sports day, having learned, painfully, that there are winners and losers. The despair of coming in from work to find her distraught about bullying at school.

The memories run into each other and some have disappeared entirely. Perhaps they will surface later when I may be blessed with long-term memory at the expense of remembering whether I had breakfast or not. Yet the 18 years could be more than a quarter of my life.

Parents tend to view their lives in terms of their children's progress. We focus on what has happened to them, yet all of it has happened to us too. It seems like no time and yet it is a lifetime. As they assemble their luggage and leave strangely silent bedrooms, we are left to reflect upon ourselves. Marriages have flourished or failed, houses and jobs have changed, and we have stumbled on relentlessly towards middle age. For some, romanticism has become realism and for others, realism has been displaced by romanticism.

She was a bruiser of a baby. When neighbours paused over her pram, she stared at them, unblinking and unsmiling. She seemed to have been born before; to find the years of babyhood tedious. She struggled to emerge from the incapacities of the early years, to walk, to talk, to make sense of the world and to make it understand where she was coming from. I was fearful of toddler group in case she beat up other children and then, suddenly, at primary school she became a mouse, living mostly a private life wrapped in her imagination and the comfort of being a Blue Peter child. The kitchen table littered with pictures, boxes, cards and indefinable other things constructed with the aid of sticky-backed plastic. She read. She wrote diaries and journals, stories, scripts and poems incessantly.

At secondary school she tucked away any public display of that vitality and imagination, so as not to draw attention to herself. Eventually, she began to thrive socially and the house filled with amiable teenagers. The childhood sleepovers of crisps, Coke and videos developed into late nights of collapsing in her bedroom with a gang of girl friends, giggling into the early hours over boys and behaviours. Last year saw her managing the delicate skills of negotiating independent and adult autonomy and now, finally, she is off to university, glowing with that heady mixture of trepidation and excitement about living away from home.

The fleeting 18 years have been a tumult of experience and learning, and I know precisely why I focused on my children. They kept me on an even keel when I was ready to capsize under the pressure of adulthood. Amidst the chaos of weird relationships, demanding jobs and organising a reasonable household despite exhaustion and anxieties, when everything else seemed tedious, they kept me grounded.

Parents, and especially lone mothers, know that the presence of a child in the house, whether 18 months or 18 years old, brings a special confidence in the face of a solitary life. Waking suddenly in the middle of the night, you are instantly alert, ready to confront whatever unexpected noise or intruder might have dragged you from your dreams. Left alone, you are bereft of that defensive parental impulse, of the potential ability to scream and claw and fight off any danger on behalf of your children. Now, as teenagers leave home for college and university, newly lonely parents must begin to learn what their singly friends have been managing for years. Suddenly being a grown-up with no dependents, without the touchstone of a child by which to measure your behaviour, can be frightening.

Children are too often depicted as undermining healthy adult survival. They make endless demands, they behave in ways we don't easily understand, they intrude, deprive us of sleep and challenge our values. They relentlessly grow up. You just think you've got them taped when they suddenly leap across another boundary and startle you into running fast to catch up. Sometimes, they are blamed for being the straw to break a parent's back, or undermining their ability to developing the sensitivities, the knowledge or the skills to take themselves forward. They can be blamed for their parents' failure to get a life.

Undoubtedly, some children are seriously challenging in their needs or behaviours. Our small family is fortunate, but not exceptional. We have not encountered grinding poverty, serious illness, criminal activity or other unforeseen disasters. We have alternately plodded and skipped through the decades. My children have kept me in touch with what matters to the young and have enriched my sense of history and sense of purpose for the future. But it has not been a picnic. We have stormed at each other and embarrassed each other, accused each other of not understanding or not caring enough.

We wield power over each other and use it mischievously. We make awful mistakes. But the opportunities to be overly self-indulgent or to sulk have been outweighed by the irrepressible intrusion of hilarity and common sense. The despair of an ineffectual day at work disappears instantly when faced with an insistence that you dress as a witch and recite a misspelt script over a cauldron of smelly socks at Hallowe'en as small friends burst into the house, their faces painted, chanting songs and showing off their fancy dress.

My baby is not lost entirely. I anticipate finding a new delight in intimate gossipy letters describing student life and the minutiae of home flying between us. But I must face the challenge of independent living. Will I suddenly grow old? Maybe I will become an insufferable aficionado of alternative medicines to keep me forever young and healthy. Maybe I will find a hobby or two. I have agreed to extend my working hours for little financial gain, which most friends think is completely potty. But they do not understand my dependence upon feeling useful, being needed. Without the demands and the guidance of children in the house, I have elected the workplace as my interim protector until I can feel safe as a real grown-up.

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