"I want to do Karate too."
My wife and I look at each other. Karate? He was only born yesterday, how can he do Karate?
And in that moment we are struck by the realisation that our little boy has somehow grown up without us noticing. Where has all the time gone? We are forced to admit that now is probably the time to stop referring to our dearest youngest-of-three as 'the baby'. In truth, we should have stopped a while ago. After all, he's almost four. We can't even call him a toddler. And it is only really when we are surrounded by our friends, who actually have sleeping, arm-snuggling, nose-twitching babies, that the truth is so stark; we are forced to confront the reality that our walking, talking, read-himself-a-bed-time story, navigate-his-own-way-through-Youtube-Kids-to watch-Fireman-Sam child is no longer a little baby. He is becoming independent. He is growing up. And with this there is no escaping that we have moved past that first stage of family life.
The babies are gone. Whilst many of my friends are still sterilising bottles and squashing buggies into the back of their cars, we've moved on. We've given all the baby grows away (except for the first one we ever owned); we donated piles of clothes to those below us in the chain. We've decluttered our house of bouncy chairs and high chairs, of rattles and play mats. All the little bits and pieces that trip you up as you go to the toilet in the night have been passed down. No more crates of plastic toys you never wanted in the first (thank you everyone for the gifts...!).
But in some ways, it's very sad. Because it means leaving something behind. Don't get me wrong - it's great to have a full night's sleep back; and its wonderful not to have to change fifteen nappies a day. Certainly it's a revelation that they can all get themselves dressed and feed themselves without getting rice all over the floor, and that they can brush their own teeth and put on their own shoes. These are all things that most certainly help stress levels return to normality and retard my balding process a little, I hope. But it is, nonetheless, an unavoidable moment of poignancy. After all, as parents, we all dedicate so much time and effort making sure our babies are healthy and warm, investing our energy and patience into keeping them safe. We all spend so much time caught up in the whirling tornado of sleep deprivation and nappy creams, trying to hold it together and not snap at one another over whose turn it is to deal with a night terror or new teeth cutting through that when the calm comes and the dust settles, the emerging quiet becomes disorienting. All of a sudden, things feel different. Everything slows down. You begin to get a glimpse of the old days. As the children begin to disperse themselves around the house, or play with each other unsupervised, a sense of pre-baby life begins to creep back in. You get yourself back. My wife and I find ourselves being able to have a cup of tea together in the afternoon. Just us. No shirt pulling or yogurt spilling. We find ourselves able to watch a film in the evening without being too exhausted. Or cook in the kitchen, listening to a book review on the radio. Or talk with one another about future plans. Personal dreams and ambitions become plausible again. Post-baby life reveals itself. And we have the space to decide we can move on. Three is enough. And that's fine.
Because the next phase is something else entirely, and brings its own set of wonders. The nappies have gone, yes. But they need us no less. In many ways, they need us more. They are past the survival stage. Now they are learning how to read and write. And to divide twenty eight marbles into nine bags with some left over. They are learning how to make their own costumes for World Book Day. They need our time and patience, they need their own private moments with us, not just our ability to make them milk or mush up their food. Indeed, they are growing into real children - with real problems and real worries. They care what they wear. They come home from school with homework. They go to clubs and meet friends. They sit around the dinner table and develop opinions. They argue, they talk back, they test their wit. They are beginning to have their own interests and skills, attempting to make jokes and asking interesting questions about the world that we struggle to answer. We've entered a whole new phase.
The worry for us now is less about when to start them on solids or whether or not they should have a dummy. No, now we worry about how we can best support them and give them the right advice. Now we need to help them make their own decisions. Now we try and teach them to choose. Because we still want what's best for them. We always will. After all, they will always be our babies.