My son started primary school last week. It's all going to be fine, I told myself. He's ready and I'm prepared, I'd decided breezily, not yet knowing that there was actually a storm brewing.
A lesson I learned a long time ago was that the build up to what one might classify as a challenging calendar date, tends to be far more challenging than the calendar date itself. Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays, each seeming to grow a little less painful as the years go by. I asked myself, Why would this be any different? It really was, though.
Day one was pretty good. Jackson was a little resistant at first, but once he located a toy lion and a tray of sand, he seemed content enough for me to make my exit. A few hours later, when I picked him up to go home, he was full of beans. I can't even explain how relieved I was to see him so happy and relaxed so soon. A tension I didn't know I was even carrying lifted and I immediately felt different.
The shift from tension to relaxation is almost universally seen as a positive transition, so why did I suddenly feel so bad? I tried to think of other examples of when this shifting state caused discomfort or disadvantage. The first thing that came to mind was meat coming out of the oven. Any good chef will tell you that meat needs to rest before being eaten, so its moisture can be reabsorbed, making the cut more tender and tasty. It's still bad news for the meat, though, right?
The second thing that came to me was that dreadful thing that so often happens when you take a much-needed holiday: you finally wind down and then almost immediately wind up ill. I suppose, to use another cooking analogy, at some point a pressure cooker is going to need to let off steam. In my case the pressure blew abruptly; I've been more upset over the last few days than I have been in months.
But why now? One reason, I imagine, is obvious: my son was without his mother on his first day at school, and I was without my wife. But something more subtle hit me, too: it was the end of an era for him and me. I gave up my job after my wife died, took some time out and then took a part-time role. We had time together and the flexibility to do almost whatever we wanted or needed to keep us both on track. Never has routine felt so unappealing as it suddenly did last week.
That's not all, though; I just knew there was something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on - until today. We'd finally been thrown into the infamously daunting world of the school gates, where I immediately felt so out of place (and God knows how it makes a four-year-old boy, bereaved of his mother, feel to see so many mums smiling through the door at the end of the day).
Maybe it's instinctive to try to fit in when you feel so entirely misplaced, but even I surprised myself with my completely unanticipated response. Perhaps predictably I rolled my eyes a little at a conversation about nutrition (if I'm to believe what my son tells me about his school-day diet to date, it turns out he is not only figuratively but also literally full of beans), knowing that my priority is for my child to be cared for and educated well when in the teachers' care. Far less predictable, though, was my sudden preoccupation after school clubs and extra-curricular activities. Was I doing my son a disservice in not having him lined up for endless after-hours pursuits?
Well tonight I made a mistake that I regret: I let assumptions about other people's lives affect how I approach mine. I passed on this playground parental pressure to my son and took him to a class that I thought he'd enjoy.
"I don't like it, Daddy," he said before he'd given it much of a chance.
'I'm not ready, Daddy,' was the message he may have wanted to share.
"But you need to give it a chance," I told him, irritation evident in my voice.
'I'm not ready, Daddy,' is perhaps what I should have let myself hear.
"But you won't go to swimming lessons, either. You just don't seem to want to join in with anything," I, the once non-pushy parent, pushed.
His unspoken words - 'I'm not ready' - rang in my ears and seemed familiar to me.
Like father, like son, I realised. I'm not ready either, and I'm not even sure when I will be. But while I'm still not, can I make one request? Please don't force me go to taekwondo.