As I write these words, my son is at school for his very last day. He is finishing up his final year, about to go on study vacation before the final exams. I am having an emotional reaction, of course, but it's not quite the reaction I'd expected.
'My baby has grown up!' I should be crying. 'Where on earth have the years gone?'
Well, yes, my baby has grown up, and yes, the years has gone, and yes, I'm feeling awed. But I also feel something more surprising. I feel a little … anxious.
Leaving school is a big deal. It's more than just a milestone; it's a game changer. I have never had a child not in school. This is the biggest change to our family since my third child was born, and, arguably, the biggest change to my role as a parent since I first became a mum.
All three of my kids were in crèche by the time they were two. They were in pre-school by three, and school by five. My days and weeks and years have been ordered, measured in drop offs and pick-ups, in lunchboxes and homework, in sports uniforms and regular uniforms, in term times and holidays.
I know how to parent a school child. It is structured and it's predictable. And even when it has been challenging – which it has, on many occasions – I've known how to tackle it, and I know who to call.
School doesn't just offer routine and stability. It offers support and guidance, a framework and a community in which to raise my child. There have been teachers and tutors, school counsellors for crises, and class lists to put me in contact with other parents.
And now all this structure is coming to an end. The future is open and it's all a bit scary. My son is a great kid – sorry, adult – and he's going to do great things. I feel excited for him, and optimistic about this next stage of his life.
But I'm also anxious. We are plunging into the unknown, and we're going to have to negotiate a whole new way of being. I realise now, as we approach his final exams, how relatively easy these years have been. Of course, at times, school was tough, and, at times, my son struggled. But it was contained. It was familiar. We always worked it out.
Not every school does its best for its students. My son's school did. The staff worked hard to keep the kids on track. They worked hard to help the kids succeed. I hadn't even realised how much I relied on them until I stared down the end of their involvement in our lives.
Now, my son is heading out into the big wide world, without the safety net of the school to catch him. And I don't know what his new life will look like. How can I? He doesn't know what his new life will look like! And this is scary for me, as a parent. I've always known what comes ahead.
But my son's childhood is over now. His cocooned days at school are done. It's time for him to forge his own path, and build his own future.
Parenting is really just a matter of tracking, the author Jodi Picoult once wrote, of hoping your kids do not get so far ahead that you can no longer see their next moves.
Up until now, I have been tracking well. It's been easy to track. My son has been in school. But tracking is about to become a whole lot harder. We are jumping into the unknown. It's scary and unsettling. But it's a good kind of scary. I think we're ready.