I have been a parent now for eleven and a half years. During that time, I have had at least one infant or toddler under my care for the majority of my day. It’s how I roll, with a sidekick while shopping, at doctors’ appointments, or in the hairstylist’s chair. I’ve had kids with me while I swimsuit shopped, had gynecological exams, and used the bathroom. I’ve bribed them with prepackaged snacks, videos on my phone, and gaming apps to solicit their cooperation during meetings and events. I’ve installed a DVD player in the minivan to ensure their complacency while I run errands, even if that has meant Power Ranger movies on repeat right behind my headrest.
This week, as the older three kids have begun settling into school and extracurricular activities for the year, Baby #4 attended nursery school for the first time. The night before, he readied his favorite bag (a car-themed backpack he inherited from Baby #2) and picked out his favorite yellow shirt (a hand-me-down from Baby #3). Just the fact that he is beginning his school years with worn and recycled materials tells you about his life up to this point.
His first school day began the same as any other day. I offered multiple breakfast ideas in the hopes that he would eat and not just drink a cup of juice and a glass of milk. He scrolled through Hobby Kids TV You Tube videos on the WiiU GamePad, and he lounged on the couch in his underwear while I bustled around to get his older siblings ready to board their buses. When I turned my attention to him and announced it was time to prepare for school, he burst into song and broke out all of his signature dance moves.
“Now ALL the kids go to school! ALL the kids go to school!” he sang over and over, nodding his head and swishing his hands.
It may be only for a few short hours a week, but he’s right. This is not only significant for him, but also for me. Throughout my entire parenting life, I’ve never been without a younger child in my care. I can see how the development and growth of the last child in a family can really tug at the heartstrings.
I thought that I would be sentimental when I dropped him off, or maybe elated. I assumed I would be overcome with emotion as I participated in a parenting “last”, since his milestone signifies the end of a parenting era for me and my husband. I suspected that I might feel giddy, tearful, and maybe free (for a few hours at least). I did not experience any of those things.
Baby #4 won’t ever remember what our family life was like before breast cancer and BRCA2. In his recollection, I have always had these scars, lumps, divots, and bumps. The cold to touch skin across my chest is the only hug from me he recognizes. The mood swings from my medication don’t surprise or startle him. Mourning his infancy is also mourning our previous lives, before we paid such strict attention to diet, exercise, stress levels, chemicals, and skin care. He begins his academic career as someone from a different life than our other kids at that age. Regardless, his enthusiasm and excitement were just as palpable as theirs were.
In some ways, this surprises me. I worked hard to prepare the older three for nursery school in all of the ways parents are told to do so: keep a set schedule, work on fine motor skills, give them the comfort of routine, role-play, discuss, and read about what school is like, etc…For him, I’ve relied on the older kids to model what to do way more than I probably should have. That is the life of a 4th child, and certainly the life of a child whose mother has been ill. To compound it, our home has been more chaotic than orderly these past few years.
He’s moving a little further away from me with each developmental achievement. There isn’t anyone in line behind him for me to nurture in those ways again. It would be acceptable for me to feel lost or sad, since his growth means big changes for me, too. However, I don’t feel that way at all.
I’m happy for him. It’s as if he has been waiting in the wings for three years to have his chance, and now it’s his turn. He cried when I picked him up from school because he didn’t want to leave it. He couldn’t wait to sit at the dinner table and share all of the details of his day with his siblings. He repeatedly asked me if he had homework, because he wanted to have a task to complete.
He is confident and self-assured that he belongs at school. Part of it is his personality, and another part is wanting to emulate the older kids. The reason I don’t feel mournful over his lessening dependence is clear to me, though: even with all our family has been through these past three years, he’s going to be okay. He’s happy, he’s bold, he’s ready, and he’s loved.