Do you hear that? It’s the sound of someone else looking after your kids, and it is brought to you by the Department of Education and the miracle of free-ish education. Relax, drink it in, maybe even break it by clearing your own throat, because the summer is at an end and the children are once again wards of the state for several hours a day. There were times during the school holidays when I thought I might actually expire from the stress of having to spend my days off with my own children, caring for them as though they were my sole responsibility, rather than a kind of timeshare with the State. It takes a village to raise a child, and by ‘village’ I naturally mean ‘a teachers lounge filled with twitching wrecks who were lured into the profession with the promise of endless summers and instead spend it in a classroom that smells like a locker room and locker rooms that smell like tombs’.
There is a mild relief and a particular sadness that comes with the winding down of another summer. Per nature’s almanac, the evenings suddenly got darker, and Ireland’s favourite tax exiles, the swallow, evacuates their holidays homes, built in our eaves without a scrap of planning, and heads south. The final sign that summer was almost over came with the opening of the Brown Thomas shop, because few things signal that winter is coming than standing in your cargo shorts and T-shirt with Jingle Bells playing and synthetic pine needles pricking your in the face and head.
Another school year begins – the eldest is charging headlong into fifth year; the 11 year old is still trapped in national school despite looking like a fully grown adult male, complete with moustache; the six year old is switching from his special language assistance school into the local mainstream school where he will replace his perfect enunciation with some flat east Cork vowels. The youngest, despite our best efforts to get him dispatched into the arms of the education system, is spending another year in playschool. So we are getting there, where-ever ‘there’ is. The start of the school year is one of the biggest milestones for any parent, marking out the steps to readying your child for the world and ultimately booting them out so you can run an AirBnB from their room.
But I’m not sure there is anything like an endgame here; with the age of retirement creeping up and house prices screaming into the stratosphere, it feels like I will still be working and my kids will still be living at home for several decades more. But what then – what comes after? In another few years I will have been a parent for more than half my life; by the time I retire, a life without kids will only be a very distant memory – what will I do with the freedom? And what if it isn’t freedom at all? What if this is what defines me – I act like this is a race to some glorious finish line where all my kids are living in comfort and happiness, but what if I am living the big win right now? A random meeting a while back with a widow brought it all home – she told me about her husband’s death, and how much she missed him, and when I asked if she had children, she said she did, and that they were great, but it wasn’t the same. They had their own lives to be getting on with, and nothing could really fill the void in her’s. It stuck with me – some day, my wife or I will die, so promises about a distant tomorrow where we camper-van the Wild Atlantic Way as active stylish seniors are not worth the imagination they were written on.
But what the end of the summer holidays does bring is the chance to do something for us – to sneak out after the school run and blow some of the college money on eggs benny, to spend some time in conversation and to share the stresses and strains of parenting, while somewhere else some poor substitute teacher tries to put manners on our wildlings. Every September is a chance to steal back some time for us, to keep connected while we count down the years to the autumn of our lives, whenever that may be.