It feels like it was only five hours ago that I left the Freemasons Hospital with my firstborn, terrified and exhilarated. It seemed bizarre that medical professionals would let two 26-year-olds who couldn’t keep indoor plants alive out the door with an actual tiny person. I sat in the back of the Camry next to the baby capsule on the cautious drive home to West Footscray, freaking out with worry that Jack’s neck would snap, or he’d overheat or feel abandoned.
Last weekend it was his 30th birthday party. Just before midnight there was a moment when I looked around and thought, parenting really does pay off. Me, the three kids, their fabulous partners, disco lights, a smoke machine. And the Nutbush.
Everyone did the moves. All in perfect sync. My husband filmed it on his phone, and I’ve become obsessed with re-watching. I love the bit where Sadie, all high energy, kicks us off and where Felix comes in seamlessly from the side. It’s my circle of life motherhood ideal: that my kids all know – and are rapt to crank out – a dance my mum taught me in the lounge room 50 years ago.
Five days later, my daughter graduated from uni. In 2003, she was a preppie in a too-big uniform, hair in pigtails. It was so bittersweet; that meshing of loss and freedom granted by my youngest starting school. This week, watching her cross a stage in gown and mortarboard with two hard-earned degrees, tears of pure joy for the strong, responsible, glorious adult she is.
There’s nothing like the richness of one son celebrating a milestone birthday just as his sister wraps up 19 years of education to provide perspective. On years spent in chaotic overdrive, dreams realised or left behind, what you’d do all over again or wish you could change.
The poignant photos everyone’s been posting of their kids starting prep or high school had me wondering, if I could jump in a hot-tub time machine, what would I tell my younger self about the whole parenting adventure so far? Here’s my two cents worth.
First up, nobody’s ever ready to be a parent, or at least to look after somebody else full-time. A lot of the time you’re grabbing on by your fingertips, aiming just to avoid disaster. The sheer terror of the love, sleep deprivation, the simultaneous despair and delight, sends you mad.
But one day your kid smiles or speaks (or becomes a construction manager and architect) and you know the rest of your life was a dress rehearsal for the creation of that particular person.
How to steer them to independence? Worry about the right things. Accept their teacher will know if your kid is a genius. Be patient – children have short concentration spans. Take swift action if they’re being bullied. I once challenged another mum to a playground rumble when she told my grade three son to “get stuffed”. The vice principal talked me down. Possibly, the right call. But sometimes ferocity is required.
Remember their screams aren’t the scariest part. Silence is a much more potent weapon, especially with teenagers. Good news is it takes them a while to realise it. Lead by example. Be honest, kind and adventurous and your kids probably will be too. Showering them with love and affection means they’re more likely to give it back.
Encourage independence. Let them make their own decisions about playing the violin or going to uni. Rules work less well than having expected codes of behaviour. Have early regular bedtimes. Say yes more than no. Understand good manners are more important for their future than anything you can buy except books. Put your phone down and pay attention. Children have a ton of interesting things to say, so listen. Trust yourself – you’ll know what to do. And trust them. Let them go. If you tie them up, they’ll chew through their leash and bolt.
Prep parents, I’m jealous. Cherish it all. Relax if you can. It all works out in the end.
Kate Halfpenny is the founder of Bad Mother Media.