There is a big stone slab outside the washblock at the campsite in Wales where I holidayed a child, and where I now take my family. The stone is where the big kids congregate- the 7-10s during the day, clambering and tumbling and shrieking, with a slash of silver sea beyond the fields behind them. At night, the teenagers lean there, flirting and texting and churning inside, beneath an obscenely radiant starscape.
The campsite is the perfect setting for kids to taste freedom: quiet, remote, filled with friendly families. Even I, who can find danger in everything, can see that the biggest risk to a child there is a car driven at 5mph by a watchful mum or dad. I can remember the heart-pattering thrill that came from hanging out at the rock as the sun set and it got dark when I was a pre-teen: I was out, after dark. It was ace.
Last year, when our daughter was six and our boy was three, I looked at the big kids at the rock, and I felt a similar thrill, looking forward to the time when my children would not be hanging off my hands and crammed into the shower cubicle with me shouting about why was I shaving my legs and would they be prickly any more- but would be Big Kids, running free at the campsite.
I have never mourned the passing of babyhood or wished I could pause time. I love my children getting older and more independent. But this year on holiday, I realised that kids don’t just become independent magically- we have to facilitate it. And that realisation was bittersweet.
Our fierce and feisty daughter craves independence– she always has. Of course, at seven, she is still years from hanging out at the rock after dark. But now she is on the cusp between being a little kid and a big kid. This year on holiday, she would beg to go the loo on her own (visible from the tent, if I craned my neck), or to take a shower on her own (with me shouting from outside the door: ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?’). One day, we let her take the breakfast things and wash them up, on her own, and the beaming pride on her face as she carefully walked the few metres back across the field with a bowl of clean plates and spoons (but not the washing up liquid, sponge or brush, which she had left in the washing up room), makes me well up to think about it.
I tried very hard to give her these jewels of freedom, this year. I know that my overbearance frustrates her already. ‘You have to trust me Mummy. I am trustworthy‘, she says with her funny, formal turn of phrase as she scrambles over seaweed-slippery rocks away from me, or scampers off to the washblock alone. ‘I do trust you,’ I tell her. I don’t say out loud that I don’t trust the world, with its people and its vehicles and its unknown dangers.
But I can hear the heat of annoyance in her voice. I could see the reproach in her eyes when she walked to the washblock , and then turned back three times to see my eyes still on her. I don’t want to stifle her- not least because she will only kick back if I do. I know my girl, and I know now that I have to start letting her go. Slowly, slowly, but I do.
I thought I was letting go before- when the kids started childcare and school. I was proud of myself for doing it without feeling too tragic about it. In reality, I now realise, I was just passing them into the extremely watchful care of somebody else. The real letting go comes from allowing them to do stuff, on their own.
And I am only just realising is that it doesn’t just suddenly happen. There isn’t a ceremony which transforms a child from a tiny nugget who curls up in your lap while you toast marshmallows on the barbeque, to a great loping thing leaning against a rock with a phone in their hand, who only comes back when you shout across the field that the burgers are ready.
It isn’t a process- like your kids growing up phsyically- that you don’t notice day by day, and then suddenly you see that their legs are too long for their jeans and their mouth is full of gaps and giant teeth. It doesn’t happen passively.
No, it’s an active process. As parents we have to make it happen. My girl is not so much slipping through my fingers, as being let out, let through, in tiny increments. A trip to the toilet on her own; a shower where she does it all herself and comes out with shampoo still dripping down her ears. A few minutes playing on the rock at the campsite while I do the washing up. The moment when I was upstairs packing to go on holiday, and she appeared- to my half-horror, half-pride- with a perfectly brewed cup of tea that I had no idea she was making. We have to let her have these small tastes.
I’m not very good at it, so far. But I’ve plenty of time to learn. Because as sure and natural as the tide, she will pull away, and her brother next. There’s nothing I can do about it, and nor would I want to. I can’t stop the tide, and it is my job- with a smile on my face even if I don’t feel it inside, and my heart it my mouth- to let go.