When your last child starts school

Cherishing the last of your time with your youngest at home.
Cherishing the last of your time with your youngest at home. Photo: Getty Images

In four months, when my youngest child starts school, I don’t know how I’ll feel. I only know that I’m desperately soaking up all the time I have left. Delighting in those final weeks of precious unfilled, unscheduled, unplanned hours that are lost once your child heads off through the school-gates.

When my daughter started school I missed her terribly, but I still had an energetic two-year-old at home waiting to get out and do things. When my son heads off, after nearly six years at home, how will I feel? Will I cry? Will I giggle ludicrously at all the hours I’ve just inherited? Or will I just wander around until 3.30, wasting time until I can scoop him up for a cuddle?

A friend whose youngest is also starting school next year went and bought a puppy the first week of school transitions. Another decided to try for another baby. If I was a bit younger, I think I’d be tempted to have too, even though I never wanted more than two children. It’s the enormous sense of loss when your youngest leaves. The sudden realisation that a whole era of your life is ending, and you just aren’t ready.

My son is mostly ready. He bounds off to kinder, eager already for more than I can offer. But when he did his first school transition session last week, in a school he’s spent four years hanging out in, he came home, draped his arms around my neck and cried. Big sobbing tears. I assumed he was scared of starting school, but he explained he was just sad – sad that everything was changing. And then he asked if I could continue being his teacher because we’d done okay so far. And it just about broke my heart.

When I had children I didn’t think much past having a baby. It was all about the practical. I never imagined the mourning I would experience watching each stage of childhood end. Of course when the next one begins, you can’t even remember what the last one was, but when you’re in the actual transition from one to the next, it’s quite confronting.

We had my son’s kinder fete a few weeks back. As I prettied up the cake stall, and arranged and sold lucky jars, I was so aware that this was it. Four years of kinder. Four years of committees. Organising events. Drop-offs. Pick-ups. Watching my children grow. Seeing them learn how to write their own name. Four years of taking home giant box constructions, glue pictures, masks and swords and necklaces. Of course I enjoyed the fete, but the next day I could barely get out of bed. I kept crying. I was just so sad that this whole phase of our lives was ending. And no matter how wonderful the school is that you choose for your children, no matter how many friends you make and how involved you are, it’s never the same as kinder.

I still remember my own years at kinder. My teachers. What the building looked like. How the sand felt. It’s like a little step along the way in readying your child to leave you. And if it’s a kind, nurturing and loving place then you feel totally secure about letting them go. Until the next stage.

Of course when the first week of February comes and I leave my son at school, after all the obligatory photos and cuddles and looking back a hundred times to check he’s okay, I may skip off merrily and not give it much thought. If he’s happy then maybe I will be too. But I think there’s something special you share with your last child that you don’t have with the others. And that is an incredible companionship. My son and I have spent a lot of time together alone, when his dad was at work and his sister at school. It has been just the two of us for large chunks of time. And that’s what I won’t have anymore. Because even if it does pan out that my daughter is with a friend and my son and I are alone together, he’ll probably rather be off somewhere else. And there’s the nub of it. The unflinching reality that the years your children still want to be around you are so short. I never believed it at the beginning. I remember being so sleep-deprived, all I wanted was for them to grow up and bugger off so I could go back to bed. Now all I want is for them to be little again. I want to wind it all back. And start again.

My friend who is a parent of children older than mine once told me you have about twelve summers before they are lost to you. Twelve years when they are happy to hang out with you, be around you, when they willingly still come on holidays without preferring to be with friends. That may not be true. I know plenty of families who holiday with willing teenagers, but the very notion that the time when your children still want you around is finite, is achingly real. I know that logically. I was a teenage girl once and still remember feeling desperate to get away. But emotionally? I’m really just beginning to learn how that feels. And it’s much, much harder than I ever realised.

We all want our children to be resilient, happy and independent. And when they are, it’s an incredible feeling. Pride. Relief. Joy. It’s the other feeling, the creeping clinginess that is such a surprise. The realisation that as much as you know they have to start pulling away, seeking a world bigger than you can ever be, you aren’t always ready for it when they are. I have three months to get my head around it. And then, I guess if I’m still struggling, there are always twelve weeks a year of school holidays when you can bunker down and get them back. Even if it is just on loan.

How are you feeling about your child starting school? Leave a comment below.