My children grew up without me noticing and without my permission.
I wasn’t prepared for the excitement of finally moving in with Drew to be as emotionally exhausting as it turned out to be. Irrational feelings of maternal guilt and sadness over the end of an era surfaced last Christmas when the realisation that the family home, where my now adult children had all last lived together with me and their father, was to be transferred to another family.
When their father left in 2008, my three had bonded to form a loving unit which was uniquely theirs. It was no longer them against us – we had been outnumbered when Rosie arrived – it was them against the world. In those early days, if one of them was upset, they would squash themselves into my bed together leaving no room for me. Phsychologists would, no doubt, have much material there; the three of them instinctively found their own coping strategies. They all still needed me and their dad, but they needed each other even more.
I hadn’t planned on being separated, of course. I was conventional, ordinary and Catholic, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t contemplate divorce until years later. The reason was, I couldn’t risk projecting a sense of regret about having them and I wanted to be able to keep their home for as long as they needed it. Five had become four; our family had fragmented and the house became a symbol of security.
When Liz, the eldest, later told me she would be moving in with her partner, we cried together over the wrench from her brother, sister and me in a way I hadn’t let her see me cry over my husband moving out. She told me she wanted to be a good sister, but she was ready for the next stage in her relationship with Tony. It’s natural for a child to grow up and move out of their parents’ house, but how often have you heard about the loss younger siblings feel or indeed the eldest child’s emotional confusion? Four inevitably became three, another fragment had formed and although the family home was starting to feel too big, I was even more determined that the three of us left should stay there where we felt safe and stable.
Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do.
Then, they did that thing you always knew they were going to do, but are strangely unprepared for. They grew up – without me really noticing and certainly without my permission. By this time, my relationship with Drew had become permanent and he had been patiently waiting for me to be ready to live with him and to notice that my two youngest children, Jonathan and Rosie, had outgrown living with their mother. Eventually, after waiting in vain for the penny to drop, Jonathan gently suggested that it was time I got on with my life with Drew, and that the big, old house I’d been struggling to maintain could be sold. Rosie and Jonathan didn’t need to live with their mum anymore, they just needed somewhere to live – preferably with each other. Jonathan’s touchstone had transferred from me to his sister and the only thing Rosie was concerned about taking from the old house to a new home was him. So unconcerned was she, in fact, that she appeared to think the move would happen by magic and fairies would be on hand to select anything she might find useful to take with her.
Packing up the family home and dividing its contents between the two new ones seemed a massive project after living there for so long. Jonathan and Rosie needed many of the ingredients I’d mixed over the years as homemaker; Drew clearly did not. In order to fit myself into the house he owned and to fit Jonathan and Rosie into a much smaller place, numerous trips to the local tip were made over several weekends – so many, in fact, that the staff there stopped asking for proof of our address and instead began checking out what we had loaded into our cars, occasionally marching away from the cavernous drop of sorrow into which we hurled forgotten toys and bits of furniture armed with ‘treasure’ fit for saving. I felt quite proud to have been identified as a better class of visitor to the local recycling and refuse plant, which took the edge off the experience if I’m honest.
And then, not long after I came to terms with my children telling me it was time I moved out, we three set up two separate households.
Several offers of help on moving day were gratefully accepted, but on reflection, prospective candidates should have been screened. As boxes on legs paraded past me from the house to the van, I realised they were empty ones left in the hallway for last minute chattels and cleaning products and I spent time I couldn’t spare unloading them again.
A little later, Jonathan magnanimously insisted his sister should be the one to unlock the door to the place they had chosen together and we all held our breath. Jonathan wanted it to be memorable for her, but after a few moments of wiggling and jiggling the key, checking it was the right one again, she had to ask for help and the ceremony became something of a farce. It was all I could do to supress my maternal anxiety as a voice in my head shouted, “You can’t leave her here – she can’t even get in.”
We left them eventually and after a day of lifting everything from washing machines to mattresses up to the second floor, Drew’s last lifting task was to carry me over the threshold of our home without bumping my head on the doorframe. He managed it – just.
I don’t think of us as fragments of a family any longer. Children grow up and move on – it’s what we raise them to be able to do. And sometimes mums are lucky enough to have the chance to move on too.