And In Your Place, An Empty Space… (another one flies the nest.)

Isn’t it weird and somewhat comforting how music fills our souls when emotions get the better of us? This time last year I could not get Slipping Through my Fingers by Abba out of my head after my firstborn child left home to start university in Wales. That song (and I am not an Abba fan!) has hit me hard so many times over the years of parenthood. It just nails it, doesn’t it? It rang in my head for weeks as I came home each day to the space she had left behind. I couldn’t even look at her bedroom for a while. I kept crying when I was alone. But it got easier.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Now, here I am again. Last Saturday we drove our second oldest child to university in Plymouth. This was in no way easier because we had already been through it once. Children are so different and because of that, you respond to them in different ways. This one hit equally as hard because this lovely young lady had endured a very tough two year period prior to finishing her A-Levels. At one point, I didn’t think she would get through college, let alone make it to university as she appeared so fragile, so young, so confused and afraid and emotional. Instead, we have stood back and watched in awe as she picked herself back up and battled through to come out the other side. In many ways, it made the moment, that last, tight hug, even more bitter sweet. I got emotional and so did she, and I told her that it wasn’t because I was worried about her coping, it was because I was just so very proud of her.

Her moving into halls could not have gone smoother. The university deserves a lot of credit for how welcoming it was, and how well organised. Street signs helped us find where to park and there we were greeted by an army of student ambassadors. One helped our daughter get her key and showed her to her room, while another helped us load her belongings onto a wagon. Brilliant! Then when she returned, we followed her to the room and two students helped carry her things up the stairs to her new home.

The flat was lovely. Warm, and welcoming, clean, fresh carpets, everything very spacious and light. She started grinning when she saw her room, which although a standard university hall room, it was just lovely and felt very homely. Almost instantly, she was greeted by one of her new flatmates who made her feel really welcome and showed her the kitchen. She then met another friendly housemate who just happens to be on her course. My husband and I thought it was probably time to go. We didn’t want to linger and get in the way of her making new friends. So, we had the hug. Tears flowed. We smiled, we laughed, we said goodbye and then we left her and walked back to the car and drove home without her.

I can’t tell you how weird that feels; driving away from your child and leaving them to start the next chapter of their life. We were fine until we turned the corner into our lane and saw our house. Then we both welled up. She wasn’t going to be there. Our little girl, always tiny, even now, she wouldn’t be there. I almost didn’t want to go inside.

Since then, we have had had numerous messages about how much she is enjoying herself. She seems to have settled in really well, made friends quickly and is really excited to start her marine biology degree. Of course, I’ve been worrying about what she’s eating and whether she will be all right using the washing machine, but mostly, I just miss her.

She has left a hole behind. A space in our house. Her bedroom, usually full of music and teenage giggles and conversations with friends late at night, is silent. Inactive. She is a real hugger and I miss that more than anything. And I’ve had The World Has Turned And Left Me Here by Weezer in my head since Saturday. That’s obviously the song I’m going to associate with this moment! Because that’s sort of how it feels, when they pack up and go. Like the world has shifted, moved them on, taken them away from you and as a parent, you’re left at home, still doing the same things, the same chores, work, and the rest of it, but with this empty space lingering around you.

The house seems so quiet now that two of them have gone. My shopping bill has halved. There are only four toothbrushes in the bathroom, instead of six. At one point I used to do a load of washing every day, now it’s two or three times a week. I feel a little lost without them and a little scared by how quickly my babies turned into grown women starting their own lives. My girls were born nineteen months apart so in my early twenties, my days were a whirlwind of constant nappy changes, feeds, naps, playgroups and tantrums, but oh, how I loved it. My proudest moments were pushing my double buggy around town with my beautiful little girls sat inside.

But life goes on, despite how left behind you sometimes feel. I still have my boys at home, I’m still needed by them and the girls moving out makes me appreciate even more how fast life goes, how we should hang tightly to every precious moment and soak it up the best we can.

And I suppose the feeling I am left with the most is pride. The girls still have to finish their degrees, start employment, find homes to rent or buy, and so much more, but they’ve both taken that first step into independent adulthood and I couldn’t be prouder. And I suppose it’s okay to stand back and bask in a little bit of genuine pride. I did my job. I’ll always be their mum and I will always be there for them, but now, most of it anyway, is up to them.

One Toothbrush – A Tale of Days Gone By

At my mother’s house, there is just one toothbrush in the bathroom. And I think about that a lot.

I noticed it a few months ago and it hit me hard. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s become a sort of marker in my mind of life, death, time and family. I realised that one toothbrush is my future.

My mother brought up four children, five if you count the one that wasn’t even hers. At one time she would have brushed her teeth at the end of the day, weary, perhaps frazzled, and there would have been seven brushes in the pot. Then six. Then five when my oldest sister left home. Then four when my father left. Then three, two and then finally, one day, (surely a day that was hugely significant and heartrending for her, but didn’t seem to register at all in my mind…) there was one.

And one day, this will happen to me. Assuming I outlive my husband, after all my children have grown up and left home, it will be just me. Where once there were six toothbrushes, there will only be one. Mine.

And now I think about this every time I brush my teeth and look at their brushes, one less already since my eldest left home for University. One less again when my next daughter leaves in September… One by one, they will all fly the nest and one day, it will be just me.

I think about how that will feel…

Sometimes when I’m really tired, when the demands have come thick and fast, when I crave just a few peaceful minutes to myself to pull myself back together, I look forward to being alone. I’m quite a solitary person and I don’t mind my own company at all. As the years go by I find myself becoming even more introverted, and even less likely to socialise or mingle with crowds. I imagine what it will be like to wake up to a quiet, still house. To go to sleep at the end of the day alone. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all. Other times, it fills me with shock and dread. Shock because it slams home how short and fleeting this one life really is, and dread because I sometimes feel motherhood has defined me, so who will I be when they have all gone?

I guess I will find out, just like my mother did.

That single toothbrush caught me off guard. Made me see my mother in a new light. I had never stopped, not once, to think about how she must have felt as we one by one drifted away. I had never, until that moment, stopped to wonder if she ever feels lonely, living alone. Waking up alone, going to bed alone. I felt a surge of guilt and then a surge of fear. That solitary toothbrush stood for so much. A life lived in love, giving more than taking, nurturing, protecting, feeding and clothing and then at the end of it all, sitting alone in a small house, with one of everything.

I wonder how often she looks around and thinks there used to be lots of pairs of shoes in the hall, lots of coats on the hook, lots of mugs in the cupboard, lots of voices and songs and footsteps and calls in the night. I wonder if she wakes up in the morning and thinks, what shall I do today? Who needs me? Is it liberating or lonely? Or both?

I will one day find out.

I have loved being a mother. But I have also understood that a big part of being a mother is learning to let go, almost as soon as you hold them for the first time. They grow so fast and growing is always a form of leaving. They start to crawl, then walk, then run. One day they pull their hand out of yours in case their friends see. One day they tell you not to kiss them in public anymore. One day they ask if they can go out on their bike without you. One day they leave home and you have no idea where they are or what they are doing most of the time, and you have to live with it. Because they have to do it.

At the moment, my eldest is almost twenty and living in another country. I miss her but I want her to do exactly what she is doing. My second eldest will be leaving soon too. My household will shrink again. My eldest son will be going into his final year of school next month and will be making decisions about what he wants to do with his life next. He doesn’t need me for much these days, but I am very lucky that he does still want me. My littlest baby is no longer a baby, no longer so little. He grows taller every time he walks in the room. He has started to strive for independence lately; taking showers by himself instead of me running him a bath, riding his bike down the lane alone, rushing ahead of me to prove he can do things. It’s even harder letting go of the littlest one, but let go I must.

And what I must also do is prepare myself for the time when they have all gone. When I wake up to a quiet, still house just as my mother does. When I go to bed alone and hear no voices or footsteps in the night. For a time when I barely have to run the washing machine. For a time when I only buy the food that I like. For a time when I no longer walk around the house picking up stray shoes, bags, books and toys. For a time when I don’t find random piles of stones and sticks in strange places. For a time when at the end of the day, there is just one toothbrush and me.

I hope the way I feel is pride tinged with sadness, a dose of nostalgia mixed with relief that my time is my own. Imagine how much more writing I will get done! I hope this is how my mother feels at the end of the day when she reaches for that solitary toothbrush. I hope she feels a surge of pride for bringing us into the world and then sending us on our way, fully equipped. I hope she knows it was a job well done, despite the hard times and tough times. I think that I should tell her how hard that one toothbrush hit me, how much it made me think of the speedy retreat of days gone by.

The First To Fly The Nest

As I write this my oldest child, my firstborn, is in another country. We drove her there yesterday, left her there and drove back. I was so excited for her new start at Aberystwyth University in Wales, but it also felt so strange and wrong to be driving back home without her. Now I’m sat in the kitchen of my startlingly silent house. The other three children are all at school or college. I’m typing opposite the space my daughter has always occupied at the kitchen table and she is not there. She is not in her room either. She is not in the house. Not in the country.

Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

I was fine yesterday. I actually surprised myself. I was more worried that she would get an attack of nerves or anxiety, so I tried really hard to stay upbeat and I was genuinely so excited for her. I still am. My firstborn has flown the nest I went into overdrive preparing for her over nineteen years ago when she was still in my tummy. I remember those days. Nesting. Cleaning the flat we lived in, setting up her cot and her nappies and her toys. Feeling so excited while I awaited her arrival. Not knowing if she would be a girl or a boy. I feathered the nest and made a home.

And now she has flown. Which is exactly what she should do. And I am so excited for her as she starts this new, far more adult stage of life. I am so proud of her and I am confident that she is tough enough and capable enough to survive out there on her own.

She will no doubt fly back to the nest for Christmas and I will have to restrain myself from fawning all over her, crying and generally annoying her! That is something to look forward to. But for now, I sit here and all I can feel is loss. This is truly something they never prepare you for as a parent. You get all the advice and warnings about sleepless nights, endless nappies, teething pain, potty training, tantrums, childhood illnesses and more. You get an onslaught of smug grins and rolling eyes from those who have done it first. They make it sound like a nightmare, but it’s not. But no one ever tells you about this bit. The bit where you get left behind and they fly off to start their own life.

I was fine until I drove home from the school run this morning. I was listening to one of her Mother Mother CDs. She got me into the band and they are now my favourite. She’s kindly let me keep all the CDs here as she just uses Spotify these days. I shouldn’t have put the CD on, but I did it out of habit, and then suddenly out of nowhere I was in floods of tears. And it hasn’t really stopped yet. I know it sounds silly, and I blame my perimenopausal hormones for a lot of it. I am all over the place at the best of times!

But I suppose it just hit me. She’s gone. She’s not here. She’s a five hour car drive away. I was listening to the music she used to play endlessly in the kitchen, or in her room. I came home and opened the fridge and there was her soya milk. I looked at her bedroom door and realised I could not bear to go in it. I laughed as I cried for being so emotional but I think my husband was feeling it too. Yesterday we were too busy and too hectic to really feel it.

Now, we learn to adjust.

And I can’t help thinking about how fast it all went. How she was the best thing that ever happened to me. How she changed my life in more ways than she will ever know. How she stayed awake all night in the hospital after her birth…these big blue eyes staring at me so seriously, as if she was trying to work out who I was. I was so proud to carry her home. A trio of elderly ladies stopped us on the way out of the hospital so they could see the brand new baby. She was so tiny. We walked into our flat and into our new life as parents and she promptly threw up all down my back. I was so happy. So in love. So excited for the adventure ahead. She always seemed older and wiser than her age. Always. She was a good baby but she only liked me. As a toddler she would cling to me relentlessly and push my husband away. She hated being in the buggy and I’d usually give in and carry her instead. She cried if I walked out of the room. It was an amazing and humbling thing to be loved and needed that much and like I said, it was the best thing I ever did with my life.

She walked early, talked early, argued early! She was so independent by the time she was three. She never stopped asking questions, she never stopped talking. It was exhausting but so funny. She loved school and soaked up everything they taught her. I remember walking back home after dropping her at school and feeling like my heart had been ripped out, but I was so relieved I still had the other kids with me, and I feel a bit like that again now. I’m going to hug the hell out of them all when they get home later.

She was always so bright, so smart, a bookworm from the start. A writer, like me. A sweet natured and shy girl as she went through school and got older. We’ve never really clashed. We’re alike in some ways, very different in others. Like me, she enjoys her own company and knows her own mind. She has always had a fierce sense of injustice and morality. She loves books and TV and film and will talk about it endlessly.

I can still remember the moment, aged six, when she pulled her hand out of mine and ran ahead to catch up with some friends. I remember thinking oh, you don’t need me anymore. And it was true in some ways, but not in others. They never stop needing you really. You just have to wait in the background until they do.

I’m going to miss her so much. There is a hole in the house today, a hole in my heart. I know it will get easier but for now I am accepting that this is a mourning period. A big chunk of my life has just changed. I had a little baby girl, I fed her, clothed her, loved her, carried her, played with her, taught her everything I could, wiped her tears and picked her up when she fell. In a matter of moments that feel like dreams, she has grown up and all of that is now over. I just feel so, so lucky that we did it. That we had that life and that time and today my head is just crammed full of all the funny things she used to do and say when she was my little girl, my little friend, my sidekick, her hand in mine and all the world before us. I blinked and it was over. But I do remember every little thing.

And now I get to watch her fly.

And there is nothing wrong with the tears I’ll cry. They are tears of love and loss and pride of a job well done. She will always be my little girl. And I hope she knows how very, very proud of her I am and always will be.

To Be A Boy Of 7…Part 2

A million years ago, but also, only yesterday, I wrote this piece for your big brother, Dylan. https://chantelleatkins.com/2015/04/08/to-be-a-boy-of-7/ A million years ago, but also, only yesterday, he was seven like you are now. When he was seven, you were just a tiny baby, so you didn’t know him then. He was all stick arms and legs and tons of white-blonde hair. In a tiny blink of an eye, he grew older, he grew up and now he is a gangly fourteen year old with a sweet, wry smile.

But you, what are you like at seven? What is being a boy of seven like, for you?

I think to be a boy of seven must still be a glorious thing. I think your heart is as full and free as his was.

Yet being seven, is not as easy for you as it was for him…You’re more intense, more sensitive, more questioning and less able to sleep. Your brain never lets you switch off…Night after night, no matter what effort I’ve put in to wear you out, you delay sleep, you fight sleep and your mind fills with worries. You tell them to the worry dolls, Sam, Shepherd and Raven and you write them down in letters for me. You tell me that bedtime is too long, that you have to lie there for hours, that you feel like crying, that your stomach hurts or your eyes are sore. I try to be patient. I talk you through it. You listen, and you try what I suggest, but it’s like your mind just keeps on spinning. I sometimes wish I knew what was going on inside there.

I wonder if I am too soft on you…but do I really want to make you hard? I say it sometimes when you are being too sensitive, when you have exclaimed ‘ow’ for the thousandth time that day, when you tell me you are getting your ‘cry feeling’. I say you need to get over it, it doesn’t hurt that much, you will be okay, stop worrying, stop making a big deal, please, please, just go to sleep. Toughen up. I tell you this sometimes because I worry that your worries will drag you down.

Know this. I wouldn’t change you though. I wouldn’t change a wiry strawberry blonde hair on your head. Your hair that always smells like the rain. I wouldn’t change a thing about you, because you are one in a million. Sometimes people describe you this way, a real character they say. If you were not real, I would want to invent you!

The little boy who stops to say hello to woodlice and bumblebees, the little boy who always takes one sock off at some point during the day, the little boy who always says please and thank you to everything and everyone, the little boy whose stomach hurts when he gets his ‘cry feeling’, the little boy who just cannot stand to be told off, the little boy who does not like to play alone, the little boy who always brings home ‘good sticks’ and ‘cool stones’.

I love watching you walking along with a good stone or stick in your hand. Sometimes they end up in my pockets, but mostly you hold on to them. The kitchen window sill is full of your finds. The garden is littered with important sticks and several of them have residence in your bedroom. And every time when you walk the dogs with me, you ask if we can pretend to be in a zombie apocalypse. You’ll give me a stick and tell me its a machine gun. You’ll have a sword or a shotgun or a bat. We’ll take down the zombies together whilst searching for supplies. We’ll look for a shelter, or a community to join. We’ll rescue each other, again and again and again.

You want to be a builder or a vet. I see both in you. You play with bricks and blocks every day, creating towns and communities and car parks. You are kindly to animals, to even the smallest spider or tiniest caterpillar. They all deserve a friendly hello and protection.

At the moment, I see you are changing fast. It feels like seven is the bridge between little boy and big boy, and there you are, perched and teetering. You are outgrowing all your clothes and shoes. Every time I look at you I am shocked. Your face is thinner but your hair even wilder. Your legs go on forever and your appetite is huge. I try to fill you up but you are never satisfied. You are a small, warm hand in mind but you are getting too pick to pick up. You like to snuggle. You ask if I have time to snuggle with you now or later. You ask for me to snuggle you up. You tell me you love me about a million times a day. You also tell me I am pretty and you tell me off if I get cross with myself. You are my biggest fan.

Today we walked the dogs together and as we approached the road I felt your hand reach out for mine. I felt its smallness and softness and I felt the belief from you that I will always take care of you. We had to pretend we were leaving our base to get supplies and when we came back you begged me to play real army with you, which meant I got some of your best sticks as swords and you got your toy guns. You laid out all your weapons on the sofa in your room and told me to upgrade mine when I had enough points. You showed me your upgrade pose – blowing the top of each gun and then pointing them while you tipped your audience a wink. You made me laugh. You always make me laugh. Every day, there is something you say or do that sets me off. You’re just happy that I’m playing with you and as you say, I’m ‘getting into it’. I keep reminding myself how little time we have left of you wanting to play like this. How I must grab it with both hands, even when I’m tired, or not in the mood.

Because it means so much to you. You hate to play alone. Unattended, you wander around and make noises and get told off for annoying people. It’s like you don’t know how to be alone, not at bedtime, nor play time. I tell you all the time to play with your toys but you hate to do it alone, even though you have the most amazing imagination. But it pleases me that you read alone at bedtime, because reading is how we learn to be okay with being alone. I tell you you are never really alone, because you are full of memories, and dreams, and hopes, and you are full of all the people who love and adore you. I hope one day you will believe me.

My noisy little boy who can’t sit still. Watching a movie with you is like being on a trampoline. You ask endless questions we can’t possibly know the answers to. You live for the details. You want to know everything about everything. A little frown creeps onto your forehead when I answer you as best I can. You are my last little one and not so little anymore. I guess in some ways you will always be my baby boy, no matter how tall you grow, and I am sure you are going to be taller than all of us. Lately I’ve seen the changes that seven brings. The self-consciousness when you realise you’re the oldest one in the park. Telling me a park is too busy for you to play in. You have always been obsessed by parks, but now you are put off easily. You tell me you don’t want to embarrass yourself. You seem too aware of what big kids and little kids can and can’t do.

But at home, you are you. Our little wild thing, with one sock missing and always with a smear of food on your shoulder from wiping your face. You get in the bath and turn the water brown and I laugh and say, that’s how you know you had a good day. You write me little notes asking me to play with you. Little wish lists of things I’ll try to fit into the day. Army men. Playmobil set-ups. Zombies. Lego. Bricks and cars.

I’ve tried to hold onto you from the start, knowing you were the last and sometimes the knowing is like being unable to catch a breath. My God, it goes so fast. A chubby baby fills your arms, gets down and toddles away, climbs a tree, runs down a hill and then finally, one day, pulls their hand from yours and leaves. Parenthood is always letting go. One small step at a time. Parenthood is always being left behind, waving, smiling, crying, watching them go. And it’s a privilege and a joy, my sweet, funny, complicated, non-sleeping little boy…You are a joy, my boy of seven, you are glorious.