This week I’ve been communicating a lot with two friends. Both are feeling kind of lost. Bereft. One is at home on maternity leave with a baby, a toddler and a primary schooler. She is exhausted, bored and feels like her brain is turning to mashed avocado. “Sometimes, I just need everyone to stop speaking to me and wanting me every minute of every day of my life,” she told me in an early arvo vent message when all her kids were momentarily occupied. “I’ve been playing trains and changing nappies and going to the park for almost nine years now and I feel like I will never move out of this stage.”
My other friend’s youngest son just finished school. She is feeling exaltant and devastated about it all at once. “I’ve been parenting for 20 years and now it’s over,” she texted me in an early morning whatsapp the day after her son’s graduation ceremony. “Being a mother has been a huge part of my identity for so long and now it’s like my work is done and I’m just….gutted.”
The days are long, the years are short.
I’m not sure who said that about parenting but my god did they nail it.
There are periods of motherhood that you do wish away no matter how many misty-eyed old ladies come up to you in the supermarket and urge you to “cherish every moment”. Look Old Ladies, I understand the sentiment and some days I too get dangerously close to whispering these words into the stressed ear of another mother with tiny kids but then I remind myself to shut up because not every moment is worth cherishing while you’re actually living it and some of the moments would be more enjoyable if you, say, punched yourself in the face. In hindsight, maybe when your kids are at uni and won’t return your texts, you can look back and cherish that adorable time your toddler chucked a fit in the biscuit aisle and cried so hard she threw up all over you because time heals and most glasses eventually turn rose-coloured even if you have to wipe the vomit off them first.
The truth is that nobody can live in a constant state of present gratitude for anything in life, even your children, no matter how much you love them. There is simply not deep fulfilment or spiritual wonder or even emotional satisfaction to be gleaned from every aspect of raising a child from newborn to young adult. There are parts that are really boring, parts that are intensely repetitive and some periods that are quite frankly, excruciating. There are also many, many more parts of parenting that take your breath away with their magic and meaning and their ability to fill your heart while also threatening to break it into a million pieces because your love for this little (then big) person is just so primal and ferocious it feels like it may consume you.
On balance, I highly, highly recommend having kids although it’s not for everyone and that’s OK too.
Your child leaving school though… that can be unexpectedly eviscerating and that’s the place many parents where have found themselves this week as their children finish school and return home to prepare for their final exams next month.
Oh this time hits you like a punch in the heart. That’s how it felt for me and I’ve been hearing the same from my friends all week. This is a relatively new thing: parents having feelings about their children finishing school.
Do you remember your last weeks and days of school? Do your parents?
Perhaps you have memories of muck-up day pranks. Tearfully signing your friends’ uniforms and promising you’ll never forget each other. Or perhaps your memories are a bit blurry because you were drunk. If you left school any time before 2000, your parents will have no memories of your final year because they weren’t involved. “I think I came to speech day for you and your brother but Dad didn’t because no fathers did anything back then,” my Mum told me when I asked about her level of involvement. “That was about it.” Were you sad? I asked her. “I don’t think so,” she said. I don’t think my parents even knew when my last day of school was, let alone did they have any part in it. School was my domain. Leaving it was something I did with my friends.
If you don’t have kids or if your kids are little, you need to know this: things have changed a lot.
Teenagers don’t finish school anymore. The whole family finishes school. It’s a group activity that goes on for months and involves multiple events. There are farewell breakfasts and farewell dinners and farewell cocktail parties and multiple farewell assemblies and farewell concerts and farewell awards nights. Parents attend all of them.
I know some mothers who take leave from work for the whole of term three just so they can dedicate themselves to the full ‘leaving ‘experience. I say this without any judgement. Like many mothers, I chose to deliberately scale back my work commitments during my son’s final year of school so I could be around more to provide whatever emotional or logistical support was required. Mostly, it was food.
I’m also not going to stand here and make pronouncements about whether this new all-family style of school leaving is better or worse than the way we just….left. Who knows. It’s different though, just like so many aspects of parenting are different now including the fact that parenting is a word our own parents never ever used because it didn’t exist. They were parents. They didn’t parent as an active verb.
The main effect, as I see it of all the parental involvement in the graduation of our kids is that it serves to spotlight the fact that this is a milestone for us too. This is in many ways the end of the active years of parenting. Our work is done. Our children’s values and personalities have essentially been formed and what happens next is essentially up to them. This is a big deal for everyone and I think that marking it with rituals is a wonderful thing.
Because we are very good at celebrating the start of things in our culture but very bad at even noticing the end of things let alone marking them with rituals as significant moments. A kid finishing school is a milestone within a family. I think it’s a good thing that it’s acknowledged. I cried through every single school-leaving event and felt incredibly upset for large parts of my son’s final year. But it was cathartic. It gave me the time and opportunities to stop and look at the man he had become and to marvel at how fast the years had gone. Even though the days had indeed been long at times. It happens that my firstborn turned 20 this week and I am no longer the mother of a teenager. I look back at his final year of school with all its rituals as a gift.
It certainly didn’t pass me by.
Mia Freedman is the co-founder of Mamamia Women’s Media Company. She is a proud patron for Rize Up, the charity supporting women and children fleeing from domestic violence, an ambassador for Share The Dignity, the charity which provides sanitary products to vulnerable women who are homeless, disadvantaged or the victims of domestic violence and an ambassador for Sydney Dogs and Cats home, a no-kill shelter where thousands of animals are rehomed with forever families. She is also a proud supporter of Ladystartups, an initiative she began to support women who have started their own business.
She is the author of the best-selling book Work Strife Balance for every woman who feels like she’s the only one not coping (you’re not) and the host and co-host of three podcasts: No Filter, Mamamia Outloud and Tell Me It’s Going To Be OK (even though Trump is President).