My twin daughters, Zephyr and Mistral, have just turned eighteen.
We had a lovely dinner for them with their friends in a restaurant with a French garden out back. There, I watched the young ladies they have become socialising with different groups, trying to put people at their ease, be inclusive, navigating their guests’ tricky food preferences.
I glowed with maternal pride, at how far they’d come from the tiny dependent things they once were.
Getting things organised for the eighteenth birthday dinner had occupied my time and thoughts in the days leading up to their birthday, leaving me little time to reflect on the bigger picture.
Like how I had officially fulfilled my contract as a mother, raising them from teeny babies, to toddlers, to medium-sized kids, to new adults. Of course, I know there’ll be more to do in future to help them. While I have breath in my body and a few marbles rolling around in my head, I’ll never stop trying to help (whether they want me to or not).
But essentially, my job is done.
It all seemed to happen so suddenly. One year passed, then another. They flew by in a blur of assignments, holidays, troubles with friends and too-short jeans that needed replacing. But eighteen years? That, I can’t fathom? It’s freaky. Somehow it came around way too fast. I still feel vaguely the same as I was, back when it all began. How can they have changed so much?
And though I’m happy they’re growing up so well, I have to admit there’s sadness too. Despite my protests about teen arguments that leave me tearing my hair out, or obligations that carve into your soul, never-ending chores, lifts to sports practice at God-awful hours without caffeine, despite all this…I never really thought it would end.
And I never wanted it to.
My twin baby girls were delivered after a forty-week gestation and a full day’s labour, by emergency Caesarean, a minute apart, just after midnight. As I lay on the delivery table, a midwife took up my camera and handed my hubby and I two tiny bundles for our first family photo, and I almost said what I had every other time I’d been asked to hold a baby – “Better not, in case I drop them!” But if I didn’t hold them, who would?
Before I had kids, I never saw the appeal of babies. How could those pooping blobs be interesting? I couldn’t envisage the joy I would feel when I saw my babies smile, or heard their first laughter. Or how smart they’d be; how alert. At two, three and four, they were heartbreakingly cute – though hard work. I never imagined I’d have so much fun playing with them, or how deeply I would love them; in this scary bottomless-pit kind of way where you knew you’d do anything for them.
The grinding work of childhood illnesses, lack of sleep, tending relentlessly to another human being’s needs, frazzled relationships, gave me the lowest lows I’d ever experienced. But when the girls were happy, and cuddling me: “I love you mummy in the whole world!” – oh the highs!
I’d experienced ups and downs in my life before. But not like this. So many tears – of joy and pain. Parenting a young child is nothing if not a bipolar experience, with higher highs and lower lows. And they switched from one to the other in a nanosecond.
On their first day at school, I was a mess, a cliché. I couldn’t meet any other mother’s eyes as I knew I would break down. For the first time in my life, I fully understood that each new beginning is also an ending. While you must move forward – they can’t stay toddlers your whole life and you wouldn’t want them to – you grieve over the loss of those savagely beautiful kids, your little friends, who played passionately, forgave instantly, their laughter like raindrops of gold.
Creeping into their room when they were asleep just to watch them, their faces were so relaxed and beautiful. But each day, they took up a little more space on their mattress. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy tiptoeing in at night.
I remember putting Peruvian worry dolls under Mistral’s pillow one night when a problem was gnawing at her, so the dolls could take away her troubles as she slept.
The primary school years were easier. Less physical work, more outings to the movies, freedom to go out for dinner together. Pixar films, Pirates of the Caribbean. There were friend problems – fitting in is never easy. But their brains were so alert, they soaked up anything new and loved discussions even on the most sophisticated subjects.
Brass band, handball, superhero lunch boxes, school plays (don’t get me started!), art on the fridge. My daughters had some inspirational local teachers; one introduced them to juggling – which they’re now very good at – the other to a world of literature and thought. We shared stories, wrote them and read them together every night. (I’m not sure what the last story I ever read to them was. It was a moment that seemed like so many that had come before, but which would never come again.) Imagination explosion.
I remember travelling along the highway on a road trip and each of us coming up with ideas for new superpowers.
Then came high school. Their first dresses; they had to conform at an all-girls school. Imagination put back in a box, with their toys, and me – lid shut tight as they pushed forward with learning, and growing. The feral nature of high school was difficult for us all, the ravages of teen girls trying to be the same yet individual. It ground us down. Made us like strangers at times. Hiding in trenches, heads covered. But in classes, they heard and read things that began to spark their interest, with an adult’s understanding.
They teamed up for a juggling act in year 9 that had their classmates screaming their appreciation. That was a high.
Police officers in our house going from room to room, guns brandished when a prank went wrong…was a low.
Years of tamping down my enthusiasm, locking it up, in case it popped up at the wrong time and embarrassed them. Arguments, as they began forming their own opinions on world events, justice, prejudice, freedom. Tough years of tears and tension at home, which seemed to grind on and on.
On family holidays, we left all our problems behind and reconnected again, for a short few weeks, at least. A recharging of emotional batteries.
And now… I can’t believe we’re here – in their last term at high school, facing their final exam, the Higher School Certificate. I know they’ll do well – which makes them one of the lucky ones. So many of their classmates find the exam brutal, with nothing but failure on the horizon – a ship with black sails.
Before I was a mum, I was a laid-back, laissez-faire type of person. I’m not anymore. Eighteen years has changed them, but it’s changed me, too. I am a parent now.
It seems to me becoming a parent is not so much an act of sculpting or shaping or chipping away at stone. It’s done with hammers and anvils, fire and metal, pounding and smashing out bumps, bending something stiff and hard into a different direction. It’s all about change – whether we want it or not.
So here we are. I thought I’d be glad when they left school – and I am, in many ways. They are ready to launch now, to begin their lives, shed the chrysalis of their beginnings, and emerge fully-formed into the world. I cheer them on in this.
But I’m sad, too, to mark what is the passing of their childhood. Such wonderful, brutal bi-polar years of love and pain.
Have I enjoyed being a parent? Was it fun? I’m old enough to realise it’s not that simple. Things are rarely just good or bad, but a mix of both. Parenthood is the wildest fun you can have; the most ecstatic moment you can imagine. But it’s the worst too.
Motherhood came, I dived in, I drowned in it and lost myself. Gradually, I came to terms with it, kept my head above water – just, hauled myself ashore. Now I find myself looking back, longingly, at the horizon wondering: Is that it? Is the journey really over? It’s hard to believe.
I am a Mother. Therefore, I am…in need of a tissue box. Full of happiness and pain, all at once.
I remember a small child holding my hand by the red post-box as I deposited a card through the letterbox opening. “That’s a birthday card for Poppy,” I explained.
Zephyr frowned: “How’s Poppy going to get it out of there?”
I wish them the best as they stride forward towards the rest of their life.
And I, too, must find a new role, a change of direction. I have to find a path that leads away from them, if only to give them the space they need to move forward, without guilt.
It’s a scary but exciting prospect for us all.
Happy Birthday my beautiful girls.
(With thanks to my wonderful hubby Andy, who’s been my best friend and trench companion throughout.)
2 thoughts on “On the occasion of my twin daughters’ 18th birthday”
Ah, beautifully written. I’m still at the 6-year-old handholding stage with my twins, but I know how fast that time has gone already! A lovely, moving piece.
Enjoy each moment, even the bittersweet ones…