London - My eldest — nearly 12 — has gone on holiday with another family for a week. She is 200 miles from us with a school friend in Cornwall, as we go about daily life at home without her. It’s proving to be an unexpectedly painful separation.
We’ve always gone everywhere together: the inseparable six. But there is no clearer symbol that everything is gradually changing than Sky’s extended absence. I guess it’s a line in the sand, beyond which the journey to a new way of family life begins. The one where we’re all adults.
When I first had children, it never crossed my mind that, once they became teenagers, the domestic unit would be radically remoulded. I was so caught up in the fuzzy, comforting moments of newborns, toddlerdom and infant school that I didn’t consider Parenting: The Sequel. The awful bit where they have their own independent lives outside of me.
She hasn’t phoned, or returned any of my texts. She’s ignored my FaceTime requests on the iPad, and only muttered “Hi” from the background when I’ve spoken to her friend’s mum. I am heartbroken.
“Why is she ignoring me?” I ask my son, aged seven.
“She was just pretending to love you all along,” he says, cryptically.
“Have you heard anything?” I turn to my ten-year-old daughter, who loves and loathes her sister equally.
“I have, actually,” she says, briefly enjoying superiority in the mind game of motherhood. ‘” texted her to ask if it was sunny and how many ice creams she’d had.”
“What did she say? Tell me!” I demand, desperation in my voice.
“She said ‘Yes’,” Gracie concludes.
Sky has been away for two four-day school trips before, but this is the first time she’s “chosen” to go away for seven days. This is the first time she has been on holiday with another family. With another mother.
I am surprised by how ridiculously jealous I am. This pain is raw and intense, worse than anything I have experienced with friends or past boyfriends. And, as with all jealousy, it is all-consuming and totally irrational.
What if she likes this other family more? What if she comes back with tales of fresh fruit for breakfast, of reading to each other from acclaimed novels, or of grown-up conversations about feminism and politics? What if no one in that family swears?
What if everyone wears socks, and nobody shouts so loudly that the neighbours bang on the wall? What if they don’t watch Gogglebox, X Factor, or Modern Family — or TV at all?
What if their dog comes when it’s called, and doesn’t smell like a decomposing vegetable? There are a million ways I fear we won’t come out on top in comparison with another family.
This family has an older teenage girl and an almost-adult boy, as well as my daughter’s close school friend. We can only offer younger siblings: an argumentative ten-year-old, an “extremely annoying” seven-year-old boy (as his sisters call him), and a bossy three-year-old.
She’s sure to find this alternative family more mature, less chaotic. Mealtimes will be cleaner. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I fear my daughter will prefer the rituals and routines of another family to ours.
I clearly remember my first trip with a friend’s family as a child. They had garlic in their food. I’d never tasted it before. I went on about it when I got home. “I’ll put some in your baked beans on toast, shall I?” Mum said.
Allowing children free will is dangerous — I should have just told her she couldn’t go. Plus, I’m an illogically jealous woman (Mr Candy is not allowed contact with former girlfriends or, indeed, any woman under the age of 110). I should have known this would cause a confidence quake. Let’s face it, when you are an almost-teenage girl, everyone else’s mum is preferable to yours.
Maybe this mum, who I only know in passing from the school gate, is calmer. Perhaps she doesn’t work and has clever domestic skills I lack.
One thing is for sure, my daughter will never have witnessed this mum angrily attacking the broken washing machine with a shoe, so she’ll instantly appear more grown-up in my little one’s eyes. I can’t bear the thought of another woman tucking her in at night, chatting to her over cups of tea. I’m close to texting the other mum instructions: “Don’t brush her hair, that’s what I do.”
This parenting moment feels like a love affair reaching its tempestuous make-or-break point. For 11 years, I have been smitten by Sky (your first is so special). Like a besotted lover, I’ve given her unconditional love, and been prepared to step in front of a runaway car to save her life.
Now, it seems I’m on the verge of being dismissed, as she explores a new way of living. The love on her part is no longer as unconditional as mine is for her, and always will be.
Parenthood is awfully bittersweet. There was a time when I was the apple of her eye, “the best mum ever”, as her many homemade cards read. Now, I am standing in the shadow of rejection as she realises there are other ways of mothering.
She’s on the brink of independence as I cling to her more tightly and, as we all know from teenage love affairs, this kind of behaviour is doomed.
I miss her so much, it’s stopping me sleeping. There’s no one to check the sell-by dates on the food in the fridge (she’s a fanatic on that), no one to work our complicated TV remote.
Plus, it’s been dull without her. The pre-teen mum-daughter banter we’ve developed is strangely reassuring. Without it, the whole dynamic of family life seems to have changed.
My eldest is sensible, responsible and reliable. Suddenly, the other three are loveable nitwits in comparison. Without her, we are always a few seconds away from domestic disaster, or a trip to A&E. She would, for example, have discouraged this week’s game of putting washing-up liquid on the trampoline to make it slidey.
When she’s here, the devastation of four children at home for the summer holiday is manageable; minus my eldest, it all goes a bit Lord Of The Flies. I’m counting the hours until she’s back. I hope it rained, I hope she wasn’t allowed ice cream, that they had no WiFi.
I want her to collapse on the bed next to me late at night, as she often does when no one’s looking, and snuggle close, so I can put my arms around her and smell the top of her head like I did when she was my baby. I want to feel that she loves me the best. - Daily Mail
* Lorraine Candy is editor-in-chief of ELLE magazine.