My son goes to a private childcare facility three days a week. We think this is a good arrangement because it gives him a chance to meet lots of other children and improve his social skills. When he starts P1 in September several of his classmates will be children who he has known for years because of this. We know that it is going to be a tricky month but the relations he has already built up should ease the transition.
It also works for mummy and I, allowing her to work full-time and giving me a chance to do some writing and undertake some freelance jobs.
I love my son more than any words I can express here but I will freely admit that if I had to look after him every moment of every day of every week I wouldn’t last very long before I’d have to be carted off to a different sort of facility.
I need just a little bit of respite. Also every moment I spend away from him builds up the anticipation for the cuddle I will give him when we are reunited.
He has been going to the same nursery for most of his short life. The staff are amazing, continually astonishing me with their skills in dealing with so many differing personalities and ages. It is often the jobs which are considered the most standard by society which are most worthy of our admiration.
Despite the continuity my son still struggles desperately every day when I have to take him there. He is a shy and sensitive boy, sometimes intimidated by the rough and tumble and clatter of large groups of young children. It takes him time to adjust to different environments. He tends to avoid rather than confront.
And so it is that we are sitting on the sofa on Wednesday morning watching Peter Rabbit. I think he must know what’s coming because he hasn’t said much in a while. I’ve simply been too cowardly to warn him. I feel that he is storing up the emotion.
I tell him it is time to get dressed. There’s a little bit of fear in his eyes as he asks ‘Am I staying with you today daddy?’ My shoulders tighten. ‘No son, you’re going to see your friends in nursery.’
He explodes in a ball of tears, wails and swinging arms and legs. Several blows strike me so I have to hold him close against me to restrict his arms. This is not a tantrum in the sense of demanding a new toy or a packet of sweets and I always try hard not to treat it like that. The hardest part of parenting is trying to understand why.
It’s a desperate struggle to get him dressed. As I fight with the little trousers and jumper his snot, tears and anger are all over me.
He screeches at me. ‘I hate it! I don’t want to go daddy! I don’t want to go daddy!’
I hold his little blond head close to my face. He is my son. He is desperately upset and I can’t seem to do anything to help him.
‘It’s ok son, you’re going to have so much fun. All your friends can’t wait to see you.’
‘But daddy, I just want to stay here with you and mummy.’
As he says this I feel something break inside of me and I have to pull him even closer so he can’t see the tears glazing over my eyes. I feel my resolve disappearing like sand down an hourglass.
He says it again and again. ‘I just want to stay with you daddy.’
For a moment that seems fine. Let’s just go back to bed and pull the blankets over our heads and I’ll hold you in my arms and we can laugh and giggle like we did before. The world won’t be able to get anywhere near us.
But I can’t do that. I have to try and do something which I have no idea how to do. I get that familiar low feeling that I am a failure at this. Someone has made a mistake putting this precious wonderful life in my care. I fight against the emotion that rises out of my stomach and tastes bitter in my throat, the feeling that I’m going to fuck it all up.
I lift him onto my knee and look into his eyes, shining from tears. I try.
‘You know son, daddy gets scared when he has to do different things too. I get scared when I have to leave you and mummy. That’s when I have to try really hard to be brave. And the reason I can be so brave is because I know we are all going to be together again at the end of the day. No matter what happens.’
I hear the words as if they are coming from someone else. They sound pathetically inadequate. I don’t know if I’m helping.
I lift him out to the car and strap him into his seat. He is crying more quietly now.’
‘Daddy, can I have two crackers? And can I eat them in the car before I go to nursery?’
The futility of the gesture almost breaks my heart. Trying to delay what he knows must happen for just a few seconds more.
I get the crackers and we soon start the short drive. He is a little calmer and wants me to sing. I try a few verses of Bare Necessities and he bravely gives me a smile.
I ask him if there’s anything he needs me to tell the grown-ups in nursery. His nod is so short that I barely notice.
‘I need you to say that I can’t flush the toilet on my own, I can’t get it to flush. Can you tell them I don’t want chicken supreme for lunch? And I don’t want to watch TV because I can’t sit still for a long time.’
‘Of course I will son.’
His concerns sound so inane as to be almost laughable but I have to remind myself to think like him. He’s not worried about bills or Brexit or Trump destroying the world; in his universe these things are way more serious. I nod gravely and assure him I will deal with it.
It is only a short respite and when I carry him through the nursery front door the sobs start again. He buries his little face deep into my shoulder. The staff are as wonderful as ever and are straight over, talking gently to him, encouraging, soothing. I try to hand him over but he clings to my neck and won’t let go. He just won’t let go. Eventually I break his hold and leave immediately. I know from experience that if I stay it prolongs the torture for everyone.
Before I go I sneak a look back through the window. My son sitting in a woman’s lap. She is talking patiently and kindly to him.
I’m back home within minutes but still agitated. How long can I reasonably wait before I phone without them thinking I’m a crazy daddy? I make a coffee but it tastes bitter, almost metallic, and I end up pouring it down the sink.
I turn on the wireless. It’s The Nolan Show and they seem to be having a debate about paramilitary commemorations. A flood of anger rises in me and I snap the dial to turn the programme off again within seconds.
I force myself to wait 20 minutes and then I call. They know even before they answer that it’s most likely me. The soothing optimism of the voice telling me that he has settled down and is now playing happily with his friends. I thank them profusely as always.
I set my phone down and sit for the first time in a while. Mummy is working away from home today and the house is quiet like a funeral. I begin to sob. Deep, uncontrollable spasms of despair pouring out of me.
This lasts for some minutes and then it is over. I dry my face. I think about what needs to be done. We all have to get on.