The other day my toddler fell down the stairs. He tumbled from about half way up and rolled uncontrollably down each step, slapping his podgy belly on the cool wooden floor of the landing. I’d been carrying in a basket of washing not too far behind him, but hadn’t seen it coming and I couldn’t stop him. Throwing the washing to one side, I rushed to scoop him up and check he was okay.
He drew long sobs on my shoulder, pointed at the offending step behind us and wailed something I can only assume meant, “That stupid thing really really hurt me.” Given the week that was about to follow, I wish I could’ve cuddled him there on that step forever. I wish I didn’t know what else would be hurting him in the days ahead.
After months of procrastination and budgeting and researching and visiting, my baby was due to start his first day of daycare and I was heartbroken about it. In fact, the closer his starting day got, the more devastated I started to feel.
I knew he’d be anxious. He’d be looking for me. He’d want his mum there to cuddle him if he fell, to make him giggle and to sooth him to sleep. After all, we’d been doing that kind of stuff together ever since the day he was born. couldn’t bear the thought of separating him from me, especially when I wouldn’t be able to explain to him what was going on. He wouldn’t understand, he’d be distraught.
Couldn’t I always be there to scoop him up and tell him everything was okay? Couldn’t I forever be at the bottom of those stairs, anticipating the fall?
The first day of daycare
The day before Ashton started I was so emotional about it all that I could barely look at the kid without tears forming in my eyes. I kept thinking back to the newborn days with Ashton, when I had no other commitments. We had no schedule. We just cuddled on the couch, keeping up with Netflix and not much else. How had I taken all those sweet moments for granted? Could I go back?
After all that anxiety, when the day arrived I punked out, convinced my husband to stay home from work so that he could do the first drop off instead. Ashton was amazing. Ashton didn’t cry all day. He was so incredible, in fact, that the daycare ladies called it the best first day they’d ever seen. My son was so awesome, they said, it was almost weird. He didn’t cry once.
So I bawled my eyes out. The only separation anxiety that had occurred during the whole ordeal was from me, not him. It made me proud, but also sad. I was the one who had slipped at the top of those stairs. Step by step.
I disclosed these feelings to my mum that night, expecting a little bit of empathy, but all I got was, “You know this is just the beginning, right? Think of his first day of school. His first broken bone. Think of the first date or his first love and his first heartbreak. Think of when he leaves home. Rach, raising a child is just one big long journey of learning to let your baby go.”
She was right.
I thought back to those newborn days again, when my midwife had planted on my chest for the very first time this perfect, little, dependent baby. I had wanted to keep him there forever. But day-by-day, he’d fostered independence. He’d learned to reach for the toy. He’d learned to crawl a few feet forward. My boy had learned to walk, to run, to chat and to charm. Every second of my parenting journey had been about him learning how to manage without me.
Where was I during those times? I was encouraging him and showing him how proud I was at his accomplishments. I was saying, “Try again”, “Almost” and, “Woah that’s a lot of poop. Good boy.” I was scooping him up, cuddling him and telling him that I’d love him, no matter what.
I was letting him go.
Dealing with my own discomfort
For all my harping on about how great the first year and a half of my parent journey had been, when I thought about it more, I realised I was just focusing on the good parts. Sure, I landed a flexible-hour job, I took him along to work meetings, I found a child-friendly bootcamp, I took him to community playgroups. But as he grew into the adventurous, busy, little soul he is, I struggled to keep up with it all.
I started to stress if he woke early from a nap because I couldn’t get work done. I got frustrated because he whined during my workouts. I’d end up switching the telly on way too often just so I could have ten minutes (okay, an hour) to myself. I couldn’t pretend things had been absolutely, overwhelmingly, developmentally perfect. They hadn’t. That’s life. Daycare would now help us both to have time apart in the areas we were currently falling short.
I’d been so focused on Ashton’s anxiety and discomfort that I hadn’t even thought to check in on my own. Now I could see that it wasn’t always healthy to hold on to him, nor was it healthy to expect the worst before it had actually happened. To a certain extent, I just had to go with it. I had to let myself tumble down the stairs, knowing I’d be okay after the fall.
If we never started to climb the stairs, and if we never fell (sometimes more than once too), I don’t feel we’d ever truly appreciate how great it feels to be at the top. I thought I was already teaching my child about this, but as it turns out, he was teaching me as well. Funny that.