At the kitchen table, Jack asks, ‘What’s for breakfast, mum?’
I haul out my tired old response, expecting the usual eye-rolling giggle: ‘Frog’s eyes and dragon something-or-other.’
Jack groans. ‘I don’t like that joke anymore, mum. I’m growing up.’
And I have to turn away, lukewarm coffee cup in hand and stand at the kitchen door blinking at the blurry morning sun.
I dream that Jack and I have a fight. There is a moment in the dream when we look at each other in the midst of the bickering. I see the crossness in his eyes – the flame of a little spirit wanting to assert itself, to push against parental control – and he sees the reprimanding look in my eyes and there’s a sudden sharp stab of a mutual loss. A shared realisation that what we have together is changing; that, more and more, we’re going to be pitted against each other. And it takes my breath away.
Jack’s been out of school for nineteen weeks since the start of lockdown, and although I’d love to report that, in this time, he’s learnt how to cook and clean, and tend our family veggie garden (which we started in between cultivating starters for sourdough bread), and that he spends hours in the garden handcrafting a wooden fort, none of this is the case. Instead, he stays in his pyjamas all day (changing into a clean set before bedtime) and there has been much more screen time than I ever thought possible.
We have allowed him two hours daily on the iPad on a game platform that he loves and which we’ve carefully vetted. It enables him to play online with his close friends and he’s loved it. It’s been the closest thing to a play date he’s had in nearly five months. While they play together, they chat on Whatsapp audio. This means there are two gadgets going at a time. None of this fills me with joy, but lockdown has reminded me that there are phases to life, and that each phase passes and morphs into something different. It won’t last forever.
I notice that if we let him go on too long on the iPad, he emerges flushed, over-excited and starving! But at the same time, Joel and I need chunks of time to work and I need quiet headspace almost as much as I need oxygen. So each day is a very amateur juggling act and some days, there are balls rolling all over the place.
Pushing the boundaries
The other night, after we’d told him off once again for back-chatting (while I thought longingly of the Victorian approach to children), Jack retreated to his favourite spot on the lounge and punched the cushion, between very pointed looks at us. When we asked him what was wrong, he picked up the cushion, put it in front of his face and growled, ‘I’m not happy in this family anymore. You’re always telling me No. We’re always fighting.’
During the family chat that ensued, Jack expressed (in his way) similar feelings of loss to the ones I’d had in my dream. We did our best to hear him and concluded with a big cuddle on the couch, which Jack eventually ended by pulling away and quipping, ‘Awkward!’
Making time to be
And then there are other moments, like our little walks on Noordhoek Common. This place, with its swathes of green paddocks, burbling streams and mountain vistas, is an absolute balm. Jack and I go on a mom-and-son date there this week (preceded by chocolate ice cream, which is always a winner) and it reminds me how important it is to make time with our kids where we can simply be with them. Where, just for a while, there is no laying down of rules or telling off. Just a simple enjoyment of their presence.
We have stick races down a very slow stream, giggling as each of our contestants got moored in the grassy banks. We walk in the golden sunlight, occasionally pierced by a breeze laced with ice from distant mountains and watch the dark sheen of the water, the rills and ripples on its surface. We discover three fairy doors set in knobbly oak trees and speculate about their origin.
He tucks his little hand in mine as we walk. I revel in the feel of this, but carry on nonchalantly, as though I haven’t even noticed. We get to a wide pool dark with tannins from the mountain fynbos.
‘Can I jump in, mum?’
My initial reaction: ‘No fucking way! You’ll get wet and cold, it’s probably slimy and muddy. What about all the laundry!’ But I keep that to myself and say, ‘Of course. Just take off your shoes.’
Push and pull
Afterwards, Jack climbs up onto a wooden swing hanging from the tallest tree on the common and asks me to push him. Then, as I walk over, he second-guesses himself and says, ‘No, don’t. It will be embarrassing.’
I assure him that no one really cares or will notice. Most people are caught up in their own activities.
‘Okay, fine, please push me then.’
The to-and-fro movement, the creak as the rope rubs against the knobbly bark, are soothing. Each time the pendulum brings him close to me, I want to wrap my arms around his warm little body and hug him close. Instead, I place my palms against his back and push him away, his curly hair floating into the blue winter sky.