One minute you're escorting your five-year-old daughter to the school gate, the next you're popping a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and wondering where the hell the last 17 years went.
This is the problem with parenthood. As my grandmother told me when I was 20 — was it a warning, I've wondered in the years since? — children age you. I thought she meant they wore you down, put wrinkles on your face and grey hairs on your head.
But I understood much later, after I'd become a parent myself, the actual meaning of her statement: children are yardsticks for our own mortality. They are the mirror into which we peer for evidence of our senescence. They are hour glasses that cannot be laid on their sides, not even for a moment; instead, they must be turned over as soon as the last grain of sand has fallen through the flue.
They measure, in solid, physical terms, the swift passing of time. They morph from wrinkled newborns to plump toddlers to joyous tweens to surly teens to young adults to older adults — older than you were when you gave birth to them — so fast you are certain you've been cheated by a too-fast clock.
And so it was when, just last week, my youngest child wrote her final high school exam. Afterwards, she came home and threw out the school shirts too worn to salvage, the notebooks filled with information useless to a teenager, the schoolgirl persona she's hated since the day she was forced to adopt it.
And into the rubbish bin went a small part of myself, too, the part that has spent 17 years defined as the mother of my children, as the P&C member, the canteen helper, the cake baker, the lift giver, the sandwich maker. It had been quite some investment, too, for between them my three children had clocked up 39 years of schooling.
In my very first year as a school mother, I drove 120 km each day ferrying my older daughter to and from the farm we lived on to the rural school she attended. I was studying for a degree at the time and took in the car with me (along with my son and baby daughter) books to read while waiting for the school bell to ring.
In this, my final year as a school mother, I've merely waved my younger daughter goodbye at the front door.
"These years in which they morphed from wide-eyed infants into opinionated young adults taught me that there is only a small window of time during which you will be the very centre of their universe."
As I reflect on my children's now-finished school years, I seem to have collected three lifetimes' worth of experiences: helping to start a community school the year after my daughter started school so that we didn't have to travel so far in search of an education. Homeschooling my children after my six-year-old son, desperately unhappy at school, asked me to be his teacher. Watching as each one of them, in their own good time, chose to go back into the mainstream educational system. Observing — sometimes with joy, other times despair — as they made and lost friends, navigated the strictures inherent in such institutions as schools, railed against the system or capitulated to it, succeeded at some things and failed at others.
In ensuring my children became educated, I see now that I gained an education myself: these years in which they morphed from wide-eyed infants into opinionated young adults taught me that there is only a small window of time during which you will be the very centre of their universe; after that, you must allow them to grow into the people they are destined to become. It taught me that it's not really my children who have made me old, but time itself. And that growing old as I watched my children grow up has been a fine way to spend my life.
Catherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.
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11 November 2016
Wonderful reflection, Catherine. My children have been, and continue to be, my greatest joy. I've spent the majority of my life being just who I wanted to be: their mum. A A Milne said "No one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first." Letting go is never easy but there is a consolation: they come back!
Roy Chen Yee
12 November 2016
Children who are a credit to you: your one connection to Donald Trump?
14 November 2016
Some might say that our children, in passing on a piece of our very being, our genetic material, to the generations to come long after our own demise, are indeed the instruments of our immortality.
15 November 2016
Thank you for these reflections, Catherine. Being a very fortunate Mum and now grandmother I sense increasingly the links between the generations, the flow of life and constancy of living. Reaching back and forth in time to connect to your loved ones is a rich and empowering experience, an hour glass multi-turned, always linked. You are a vital link in the great chain of life. Our children bring our lives to fruition.
17 November 2016
Catherine, your beautiful piece gave me chills! You have such a candid and warm way of expressing. As a fellow writer who chose not to have children, your article provided a distinct and original window into a realm I can only imagine.