Bye, bye, baby, bye, bye

THE BABY started school yesterday. She didn’t want to, particularly, and the good-morning snuggle in our bed lingered on and on. It made her father laugh. It reminded him of how he had felt when I was expecting our first child and my waters broke in the middle of the night. He had dived under the Doona in dismay and said, “Just give me a minute.” Anything to hold off this momentous change.

Frightened to let them come, frightened to let them go. We had all worked hard on getting used to the idea of school. She had paraded around in her blue-checked uniform and sensible black shoes over the holidays, carefully packed and unpacked all the mysterious contents of the schoolbag, and played “school” every day for a fortnight.

It got to the point where even I was becoming confident that this quiet, shy little girl was going to be fine. Then came the time I couldn’t play teacher – there were potatoes to be peeled – and her big brother offered to stand in. “Hang on,” he said. “I’ll just get the strap and the ruler.” Her eyes widened.

No, no, I protested, they don’t hit children at school these days. It’s one of your brother’s stories, like the one about how you would grow antennas if you were bitten by a dragonfly. And remember how he fibbed that the dentist would saw your head off and screw it back on? That wasn’t true, was it? She nodded doubtfully. But I was reassured; it reminded me that her schooldays would be dramatically different from mine.

Yesterday she dressed herself except for the final tie of the shoelaces and tried the loaded bag on for size. “It’s too heavy,” she protested over her new harness. She lurched between over-exuberance and vulnerability, clowning about the room and then throwing herself into my arms and clinging.I rocked her and sang what I had always sung for them when they were feeling small and frightened, that old ’60s classic, “Be my, Be my baby . . . My one and only baby, Be my darlin’.”

The moment, when it came, was an anti-climax. Kids hate goodbyes, hate having to face that you are leaving them. They leave you instead. One minute she was holding my hand outside the classroom, the next the teacher appeared smiling at the door and our preppie slipped into the room without a backward glance.

Her dad and I stood, bereft, watching through the glass. It was like the scene in the film Father of the Bride, where Steve Martin, after organising the wedding from hell, realises that his daughter has left without so much as a kiss goodbye.

I’d been longing for milestones ever since the first child came. You long for their first word, their first step, their first night sleeping through, that first tinkle in the potty. And then comes the day you realise you’ve wished their lives away.

First published in The Age.