Us Mothers…I have to say, we’re terrible liars. All of us. I remember after my first daughter was born, I was furious with my aunts and my own mum. ‘You didn’t tell me it would be THAT bad!’ I railed. ‘Why didn’t you WARN me?’ They shrugged it off and told me that if women shared the actual truth about childbirth, babies would never get born.
And as I’ve got older, I’ve been complicit in this big secret-keeping thing we all do. How often have I stood around admiring the bump of a heavily pregnant first-time mother and found myself saying in a soothing voice, ‘You’ll be fine. Once you’re in the zone, it’ll fly by.’ Lies. Lies. Lies. You’ll feel like you’ve been in a motorway pile-up.
Or with a new mother. ‘It gets easier.’ Hmmm…no. It doesn’t. Not for months. Not until you’ve experienced the ravages of sleep-deprivation that they reserve for hardened soldiers in the torture scenes of 18-rated movies.
I thought the childbirth and new mother complicity thing were the only ones we mothers do. But oh no, no, no. There’s another one. A big one. One that I didn’t find out about until Monday, when my eldest daughter went off on her Year Six camp to Dorset.
And Bam! Out of the blue. There it was. Something I was totally unprepared for. Because nobody had told me that watching my baby going away for the first time would make me feel that level of blind panic. And just plain, outright heartbreak.
I managed to just about hold it together waving her off. But as the doors closed, I watched my little girl’s face crumple on the other side of the tinted coach window and my heart felt like it was being torn out and stamped on the patch of grass that the school-run dogs wee on.
Some of the other mothers went for a group support breakfast. Another one said in a choked voice, ‘well, that’s it. Only seven more years and they really will be gone for good.’
I couldn’t even reply, too busy staggering to the car in order to wail in privacy.
Gone. For a week. No communication. The longest time I have ever spent away from her. Ever.
Of course, as a novel writer, I write about heartbreak all the time. Weeping, the clutching of pillows, looking at photos in the middle of the night all with a tear-jerk imaginary soundtrack are my standard fare. Emotional bread and butter. Those kind of moments pay the mortgage.
But this week, they’re very real. Because not since Whitney Huston was number one in the charts have I ever been remotely like this. I’m like a heartbroken teenager. I can’t really eat (which is not actually such a bad thing, but just a bit alarming for me). I can’t sleep (which is just plain odd. I always sleep). And yesterday, I even broke down in Waitrose on the poor guitar teacher, a childless twenty-something, who innocently asked me in the queue how my eldest – his pupil – was getting on, and I totally lost it. The poor guy. He didn’t know what to do. And I couldn’t stop crying, even though I was mortally embarrassed and the cashiers were making eyes at each other.
So there we are. Another one of those mothering moments, where I’ve discovered that we all are complicit in not telling each other a fundamental truth: That saying goodbye to your child is worse than anything else you’ll ever feel.
Friends rang me up and sympathized and Mum was very supportive. They’ve all been through it. They just hadn’t told me. Stoicism. That’s what we all have. The unbelievable capacity of a mother to bear pain.
And I feel terrible, because I know that so many worse things happen in the world. And I want my darling girl to grow up and live her own life. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I’m still an emotional wreck, even though I know that by time the coach got out of Brighton, she’d probably found all the sweets I’d hidden for her and was having a wail of a time. And I also know that when she comes back, once again I’ll be complicit in the mothering lies. Because when she asks me whether I was OK without her, I know I won’t tell her the truth.