I was reading an article the other day about working mums and the guilt they often feel as they juggle family and work. It took me back to a day in the summer of 1999…
The car stopped, the child who had been sitting patiently on the back seat, strapped in and apparently oblivious to our bright chatter as we drove into the school car park, undid his seat belt, opened the car door and leapt out in one fluid movement, before we could turn around. By the time we had jumped out onto the tarmac, he had legged it.
Was this a child who hated school? No way! This was a child who, for the past three years of school life, had clamoured to go to school every day, who had ne’re missed a day unless chicken pox or worse overcame him (Youngest of five, born four years apart from older brother, this child had missed suffering all the normal childhood illnesses at the same time as his siblings and had to go through them alone.)
Was this child ill? No way! This child was in the rudest of health and nor was he without the vocabulary to articulate his problems, normally. On this occasion, he must have decided that ‘actions speak louder than words’.
My husband chased after him, I say ‘chased’ but that is hardly the word. ‘Chased’ suggests that our son was in sight, that we could see where his seven year old legs had taken him. In reality, my husband ran round a bit and then returned saying we had better drive home and see if our son was somewhere along the way.
We drove slowly in the direction of where he had gone. A mile and a quarter later we spotted him. How had his legs taken him this far? Surely he was destined for great things athletically if he could sprint that far, so quickly, at his age? These thoughts were banished immediately by our relief at finding him.
Reluctantly, he got back into the car and we tried again. This time he did not run, he merely refused to get out of the car. Nothing we could say would convince him to move. The Headmistress came out of her office to coax him out and, eventually, with her patient assurances that all would be well, he allowed himself to be taken inside the school and the day passed peacefully.
‘Had anything changed at home?’ the Headmisstress wanted to know as we chatted afterwards. Well, I had to tell her that I had just started working different hours. I could bring our son to school but he was now going home with an older brother or sister and I was arriving home a few minutes later. As I spoke, guilt suffused me. What had I done?
The following day, I anticipated the same problem. However, on his own with me, he merely requested that I take him into school instead of leaving him in the playground each morning. This, I should say, was not normal practice for 7 year olds. Mothers were not encouraged to follow their offspring into the cloakrooms where space was limited. However, they waved the rules for my son and so, for the rest of the week, I took him all the way to his coat peg each day before I went off to work, receiving the biggest hug imaginable for my efforts each time.
One morning a week or two later, as I prepared to walk with my son into the cloakroom area as, what had become, ‘normal’, he paused and gently withdrew his hand from mine,
“It’s ok mum, I can go in by myself,” he assured me bravely. I had to ask him why, why had he suddenly found that he was able to take this step?
“I worked it out for myself,” he told me with a shrug,” You always used to be at home when I got in and now you aren’t. But it’s ok, because you are always there just afterwards so it really doesn’t matter.” With that, he gave me a kiss and disappeared back into the melee of school life. He has never looked back since.
I am glad that he worked this out on his own, that his seven year old self was able to make sense of the changes that were occurring in his world. I am glad that he cheerfully got the bus home at times and appeared always to be well adjusted and unblemished by having a mother who worked slightly longer hours than she had done.
Now grown, he shows no sign of having suffered irreparable harm by that early independence thrust upon him. So, why then, am I, to this day, filled with guilt and horror at the thought of that seven year old boy running home to escape his demons?
Reading the article, empathising with the stories told, I felt comforted by the knowledge that, the world over, there are other mothers who feel or have felt the very same.