The four year old couldn’t get to sleep tonight, torn between overtiredness and a sense of grievance that the other two were out having a treat which his age precluded him from joining. I ended up staying with him as he drifted off, one hand held tight in his, the other stroking the hair he is so desperate to grow long enough to be styled into a parting and slicked down with gel.
I don’t do this anymore. I don’t watch my children as they tip from waking to sleeping, hear their breathing still and settle and see their faces lose the animation of the day. Most of the time they don’t need me there, and I’m usually busy elsewhere anyway. It’s only on the rare occasion of illness or upset that my presence is called for, mutely, with a pull on my hand or an arm snaked round my neck that lets me know they want me to stay.
In town earlier this week, I saw an acquaintance I knew when we had our first babies at the same time. We drifted apart after our respective third children were born, and she has gone on to have a fourth and what her profile revealed to be a fairly imminent fifth. I had thought my days of broodiness were done, but the sight of her with small children still around her and another yet to come jolted me.
Perhaps it was the imminent, though different, change in my own life, that of returning to full time work for the first time in a decade. Perhaps it was the knowledge that in a couple of weeks my age will start with a four. Whatever the cause, I was, briefly but unmistakably, jealous.
Realistically, I know I don’t want to have any more children, and that having three has pushed me to my limits. I don’t think I was jealous of her so much as I was jealous, ridiculously, of my old self; that woman with the bump ten years ago who had no idea of what was all to come.
These have been the most prosaic of years to the outsider. Three children and the inestimable blessing of being utterly run of the mill. Nappy changes and weaning and nursery woes. Lost teeth and bumped knees and tummy bugs. School runs and soft plays and friendship spats. If you could pick “Early Family Life” off a shelf in Tesco, this is what it would look like.
They haven’t been prosaic to me. Making a family may be the most commonplace thing in the world, but making your own family? That is a thing of wonder and terror. Loving your children is so expected a thing that it is taken almost entirely for granted, but to love your children? No one and nothing can prepare you for the joy and the guilt and the fear. There is no time at which you can stop, and hold your family as a work in progress to take stock of what you have accomplished. For your materials are living threads which weave themselves into a pattern which can only ever be fully seen once finished.
It is hard to comprehend that part of this family story in which I wrap myself is complete. I won’t hold a baby of my own again, I won’t spend days wrangling toddlers and nights rising endlessly from bed. Soon, I will wipe a small bottom for the last time.
I don’t want to do it all again. I think I just wish that I hadn’t done it all already.