GROW­ING UP

As his el­dest daugh­ter turns 5, Greg Bruce re­flects on the mile­stones a child — and par­ents — face as they evolve

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As his el­dest daugh­ter turns 5, Greg Bruce re­flects on the mile­stones a child — and par­ents — face as they evolve

I wanted to tell her that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be fine, but I just couldn’t.

From the time we first started send­ing Tal­lu­lah out into the world with­out us, as a 3-year-old, our un­der­stand­ing of what goes on in her life — both what hap­pens and how she feels about it — has fallen away pre­cip­i­tously.

“How was kindy today?” we have asked two or three days a week for the past two years. “Good,” she has replied. “What did you do?” we have then asked. “Can’t re­mem­ber,” she has said. This has hap­pened not once or twice, not even reg­u­larly, but with­out fail ev­ery sin­gle day — es­sen­tially the same words, hun­dreds of times, in the car, or at din­ner or while play­ing a kitty game or horsey game in the lounge — for the last two years.

A hand­ful of times she has sub­se­quently spilled some additional morsel of in­for­ma­tion. Once, for in­stance, she men­tioned that she’d done a puzzle.

With­out try­ing to look too ex­cited, we asked the ob­vi­ous fol­low-up: “What was the puzzle?” “Can’t re­mem­ber,” she said. It’s not just what hap­pened in her day, she’s been a closed book on any­thing we might show an in­ter­est in. “How are you feel­ing about X?” we might ask. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she will re­ply. We have never stopped try­ing to learn about her life and she has never stopped re­fus­ing to tell us.

Pos­si­bly it’s ge­netic. My wife’s par­ents used to call her “Zanna Don’t Talk About It Gillespie”, which surprises me be­cause my ex­pe­ri­ence of her as an adult is the ex­treme op­po­site.

It seems so un­fair to Zanna’s par­ents. They have loved her for more than three decades with a pu­rity I will never match and she has re­warded them by telling me about her life with a depth they will never hear. I un­der­stand now that this, too, will be my fate as a par­ent and it hurts in ad­vance.

But Tal­lu­lah is still only 4, or at least she was when the fol­low­ing ex­change took place, and so her un­der­de­vel­oped self-pro­tec­tion fil­ter some­times fails and her feel­ings leak out in spite of her­self. When they do, they’re so beau­ti­ful and poignant I can hardly bear it.

It was the night be­fore her 5th birth­day and she was ly­ing in bed, in her pur­ple and white striped cat one­sie py­ja­mas, so ex­cited about the LOL doll and Pikmi Pop she knew she was get­ting in the morn­ing that she was al­most pure en­ergy. I gave her a cud­dle and kiss good­night and said, “I can’t be­lieve you’re go­ing to be a school girl! I re­mem­ber my first day at school.”

She be­came quite still and looked at me in such a way that I re­alised this had never oc­curred to her. I could see her pro­cess­ing and I as­sumed the re­sults of the pro­cess­ing would never be made avail­able to me. Then she said: “Were you ner­vous?” Like so many things she and her two younger sib­lings have said over the past few years, it was the cutest thing I had ever heard. I wanted to hug all the worry out of her.

I knew enough about par­ent­ing to know that I should not, un­der any cir­cum­stances, tell her I had been enor­mously ex­cited about my first day of school, that pri­mary school was al­most en­tirely easy and de­light­ful for me, that I was well-ad­justed and dur­ing Star Wars games I was al­ways Luke Sky­walker.

I said, “Of course I was ner­vous! Every­body’s ner­vous on their first day at school. It’s nor­mal to be ner­vous.”

I wanted to tell her that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be fine, but I just couldn’t.

ONE THING I have of­ten said to Zanna about par­ent­ing is, “Our job is to pre­pare our chil­dren to live with­out us.” I can’t re­mem­ber where I pla­gia­rised this from and it ac­tu­ally means noth­ing any­way be­cause it can be pressed into ser­vice in al­most any ar­gu­men­ta­tive di­rec­tion.

Do we best pre­pare our kids to live with­out us by putting them into child­care when they’re ba­bies? Or by keep­ing them at home with us so

they don’t suf­fer ma­jor emo­tional trauma?

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t there for Tal­lu­lah’s first day of kindy, just af­ter she turned 3. I know that she begged Zanna not to leave and that Zanna did even­tu­ally leave. I know that she sat at the glass door over­look­ing the carpark and cried real tears as Zanna drove away cry­ing real tears.

I know that she sat cry­ing at the door ev­ery day for months as Zanna left, then af­ter those months she stopped the cry­ing and re­placed it with pin­ing.

As our chil­dren grow, their lives slip away from us in­cre­men­tally un­til, I as­sume, one day we no longer have any idea who they are.

Sooner or later they have to leave us. Sooner? Or later?

WE HAVE tried many ap­proaches and philoso­phies and tru­isms to fix our con­stant par­ent­ing fail­ures. For a while it was some­thing called RIE (Re­sources for In­fant Ed­u­car­ers), which I un­der­stood to be some­thing about treat­ing chil­dren with more re­spect than nor­mal. But then Zanna was kicked out of the RIE Face­book group for voic­ing sup­port for another mother she felt had been un­fairly kicked out of the group and I came to think there must be some­thing morally de­funct with a sys­tem ad­min­is­tered by peo­ple who would pun­ish some­body for sup­port­ing another per­son.

No sys­tem has worked for me, mainly, I sus­pect, be­cause I am doubt­ful of any­one who claims to have the an­swers. I am doubt­ful of Tony Rob­bins, wealth gu­rus, ca­reer gu­rus and Leighton Smith. I am doubt­ful of Aris­totelian­ism, con­se­quen­tial­ism and Kan­tian­ism. I am a doubter be­cause I sus­pect there are no good an­swers. I’m not sure if I thought this be­fore I had chil­dren, be­cause that time has been erased. All I know for sure is that my pri­mary weapon in the war of life right now is doubt.

The RIE peo­ple al­ways had an an­swer and I hated that. “What would the RIE peo­ple say/ do in this sit­u­a­tion?” be­came an ever-present in our house. They would al­ways have an an­swer, I knew, be­cause Zanna al­most al­ways sup­plied it on their be­half. But could they, in such a dy­namic en­vi­ron­ment, re­move ev­ery vari­able nec­es­sary to make that an­swer sci­en­tif­i­cally sound and ver­i­fi­able? If not, were their ideas any bet­ter than mine?

From the time our chil­dren are ba­bies, we be­gin to con­vince our­selves we have some things fig­ured out, but with time and hind­sight we dis­cover how of­ten we’re wrong. This, I think, may be the most valu­able thing I’ve so far learned about be­ing a par­ent: many of my de­ci­sions are ob­jec­tively not very good and some are very, very bad.

Had we done the right things to pre­pare our daugh­ter for school? Was she ready? Would she ever be ready? What did it mean to be ready? Would I ever stop ask­ing ques­tions?

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