White Ankle Socks and Rookie School Mums

There’s something about seeing them out there in the world without us: that little person that we held curled in our belly and heavy in our arms for so long. Something about watching them – before they’ve seen us – untethered from our own body, afloat in the big wide world. The first few times we return in time to catch them playing independently at a crèche or childcare, the sight seems miraculous, almost shocking: concrete proof of the idea that this child of ours can, and does in fact, continue to exist without us right beside them.

Last week my daughter took some bold steps out from under my wing and into that big wide world. She went ahead and – gulp – started school. It was a huge day, coming on the heels of a roller-coaster 24 hours (more on that later). However, as I work at the school part-time, I was granted the enviable opportunity to spy on observe her briefly a few times as she adapted to her new habitat. They were treasured glimpses that helped to set my mind and heart at ease.

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Honestly, the build-up to first-day-of-school was monumental, at times overwhelming. Despite having taught junior primary for over a decade, I still found myself completely bewildered by decisions about non-marking sports shoes and iron-on labels and contact versus removable book covers. In the lead-up I indulged in spurts of panicked online shopping on school stationery sites with cute names like Dinkleboo and Stuck on You – seeking solace among contented owls and jolly robots, swirly fonts and pastel shades. However, when none of the name stickers, fairy book covers, personalised library bags or iron-on labels had arrived by the start of school and I was forced to improvise with clear covers and laundry markers, I was left feeling like the biggest school rookie mum around.

Meanwhile, my daughter appeared to be holding up well. She was counting down the sleeps until first-day-of-school. She had breezed through her school transition visits, thought her new teacher was “beautiful and nice”, and was excited that her kindergarten bestie would be in her class. However, the thing about my girl is that she can be a bit of a sleeper weeper. By that I mean that she will often appear calm and excited about an upcoming event or milestone, while a whole layer of anxiety is actually bubbling just beneath the surface – ready to erupt without warning in the form of an emotional volcano. Sure enough, at quarter-to-five on the afternoon before school, it blew.

It all came down to the socks. Our family had been enjoying the Australia Day public holiday and we were about to crank up the BBQ for dinner, when I called my daughter to her room to try on her uniform one more time before school. Of course, we had tried on the dress, the hat and the shoes when we bought them in the weeks prior. The only element we hadn’t tried on was the white ankle socks purchased from the school’s uniform shop – but who tries on socks? (Only a fool wouldn’t think to try on the socks! shriek all the experienced school mums. But as I said, I’m a rookie school mum and it hadn’t even crossed my mind). She pulled them on and – boom – up she went.

The socks, you see, didn’t feel right. They had padded soles, and when shoes were added to the equation, the shoes felt too tight. The obvious solution was to find an alternative pair of thin white ankle socks in her cupboard that would feel more comfortable with the shoes. But do you think I could find a single pair of plain white ankle socks that didn’t have visible holes and/or a pink stripe across the middle? What had started as crying progressed to wailing. And what had started as a reasonable mother trying to reassure her daughter that she just had to wear-in her shoes a bit, progressed to a mother teetering precariously on the edge of hysteria. After all, I asked myself, what sort of foolish, rookie mother gets her child to try on her complete uniform when it’s too late to fix anything that’s not right? “I’ve ruined her first day of school!” I sobbed to my husband. Because I know my daughter better than anyone, and I know with absolute certainty that if her socks don’t feel right and if her shoes are too tight, that is going to be the thing that overshadows new books, and nice teacher and best friend and fun playground on her first day.

It was ten-to-five on a public holiday, the day before school started, that Superstar Daddy sprang into action. There was a “do or die” look in his eyes as he grabbed his Superstar Man-bag, keys to the family sedan and bolted to the door on a Mission. I asked him where he would possibly find white ankle socks or even a shop still open at this time, but he was not to be deterred. “I have to try!” was his brave response, he was gone.

Meanwhile, not willing to take my chances with anyone – even Superstar Daddy – managing to locate a sock-selling store in Adelaide just before five on the Australia Day holiday, I went in search of a back-up plan. I found it right at the bottom of my two-year-old’s sock drawer: a pair of plain white ankle socks in toddler size. I have to try! rang in my ears like a mantra, as I wiggled my daughter’s feet into the undersized socks and tugged on her school shoes. I could hardly breathe as I waited for her verdict. In a tiny voice my little girl peeped, “They feel good,” and promptly burst into tears.

A surge of relief and love washed over me as I gathered my daughter in my arms. My little girl, a week off five, about to embark on the biggest day of her life. I knew just how she felt – how anxious and excited and strange and completely overwhelmed. I also had a hunch that the time just before starting was going to be the hardest bit, and I tried my best to tell her this. Tomorrow, things would likely be okay – we just had to get through tonight. And it wasn’t over yet.

I rang Superstar Daddy immediately to tell him the good sock news, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I had expected him to return to start the BBQ after a dash to our local IGA around the corner. When there was no sign of him after half an hour, I started to grow irritated. I couldn’t imagine what was possibly taking him so long. As the time stretched to an hour, my irritation turned to anxiety and my calls became increasingly panicked. Okay, so perhaps my own emotions were a little heightened too, but by quarter-to-six I had reached the conclusion that he had had a terrible accident and was lying pinned inside our crumpled car somewhere. I was on the verge of contacting relatives when Superstar Daddy burst in the door, clasping a pack of slightly padded, mostly white ankle socks. Not perfect, but about on par with our toddler socks in the category of better-than-nothing.

So, against the odds, my daughter made it to first-day-of-school: correctly attired and tear-free. She was a picture of smiling serenity as I kissed her goodbye and weaved my way back through the gaggle of flapping, pecking parents. Personally, I was feeling a little raw and woebegone. I was exhausted before the school day had even begun. But I had a class to teach, so I took a deep breath and did my best to hold it together.

Late in the morning, between my classes, I saw her: out there in the big wide world – or at least the Reception playground. She was springing across a row of stepping-stones, light and carefree in her new school shoes and white (toddler-sized) ankle socks. It was impossible to feel bereft at the sight of her: untethered from me but not aimless, afloat in the world but not adrift. I smiled at the miracle of my daughter, brave and curious, exploring the world without me. And then, with a bursting heart, I kept on walking.

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Mother’s Guilt

Ah, Mother’s Guilt. It can hound your heart: fierce and persistent. I’ve had a bad case for about three-and-a-half years now. Of course, the thing about being a mother is that there’s always plenty of stuff going on to distract from a case of Mother’s Guilt. Like Mother’s Guilt about something else, for example. But in those rare silent spaces of the day, the shriek of guilt echoes still. And it says: “Why haven’t you taken her swimming lessons?”

Because here in Australia, it’s what parents do. We are a nation in love with water – which is not surprising given our environment. This summer we sweated through 12 days over 40°C (104°F). There was a day in January where my city held the dubious honour of officially being the hottest city on Earth (46°C/ 115°F). Our national anthem proclaims our home to be “girt by sea”: we are a big hot island enfolded in the most enticing sapphire. Our kids grow up with nappies full of sand and eyes smarting from salt-water. They visit Friends With Pools, ride on inflatable mattresses, play Marco Polo and smell of chlorine and sunscreen and summertime. Swimming lessons are a significant part of this lifestyle. You may have a naturally-birthed, exclusively breastfed, cloth-nappy-wearing, sleeping-through-the-night six-month-old, but if she’s not enrolled in baby swimming lessons, you’re only so-so as a mum. And yes, congratulations dear friend, for helping your baby achieve proficiency at Butterfly by his first birthday.

Although she tends to be cautious at first, given a little time to adjust, Lily adores jumping waves with Daddy at the beach or bouncing through the swimming pool in Mummy’s arms. It’s not as if we have completely denied her and her brother the joys of water. But somehow we just never seemed to get around to those pesky swimming lessons.

Last week I finally – years too late and definitely not in the best season – made an attempt to appease my Mother’s Guilt, and enrolled both kids in swimming lessons. Lily had her first yesterday afternoon. All day she was bouncing off the walls, exclaiming how she couldn’t wait. In fact, her uncharacteristically eager compliance to all my instructions – bathers on, hair up, track pants over the top, showering before her lesson, new goggles on – actually made us early for our lesson.

There was a moment where I was almost lulled into thinking this whole swimming lesson caper was going to be straight-forward. I say almost because being mum to my precious Lily for four years has taught me that new experiences are never easy for her (which may help to explain my reluctance to dive into swimming lessons, if you’ll excuse the pun). Dancing lessons, Sunday School, occasional care, childcare, kindergarten – all looked marvellous to her from a distance, but became tear-soaked affairs the day they shifted into reality.

Sure enough, when the moment came to step into the pool, Lily burst into tears, “I thought I wanted to have swimming lessons, but I don’t!” she cried plaintively. “I’ve changed my mind!” The instructor ended up having to carry her, thrashing and howling into the pool. I watched (as well as I could whilst struggling to prevent my toddler from hurling all manner of items including himself into the water) as she manoeuvred my daughter’s reluctant little frame into a range of positions: belly, back, star float, belly with kick-board, back with kick-board. A bench-load of attentive parents were treated to an earful of wails and whimpers, climaxing in the blood-curdling protest: “I don’t want to get my hair wet!” And my heart twisted and crashed inside my chest as Lily’s face registered a gamut of emotions: distress, anxiety, concentration, fleeting pops of joy and pride.

Towards the end of the lesson, while the other little girl in the class ducked and dived and wet her hair like a mermaid, Lily – the picture of misery – huddled on the pool steps with teeth chattering, tears streaking her face, pink goggles askew and bather pants half-way down her bottom. Honestly, I wanted to cry myself. While there had been a few positive moments, it had been a pretty agonising half-hour on the whole. And as for the Mother’s Guilt: if anything, seeing my little girl struggle out there had made it roar all the louder. But then, what’s motherhood without an ample dollop of guilt?