I was in my twenties when I first went to the school gate as a mother with Jimmy and Dolly. Back then, I always felt surrounded by married couples, putting my single-motherhood into stark relief. It was the mothers with partners who met for coffees, formed book groups and greeted one another in gym kit to go running together. I never felt as though I belonged: I just wanted to run away.
Now I’m past 40 and Dash and Evangeline and later Lester are taking me back to the primary school gate.
Secondary school is a different experience; children take themselves to school, so there are no play dates or fledgling relationships with new mums to navigate. Until that call summoning me to the headmistress’s office, my dealings with Jimmy’s school had mostly been at arm’s length, confined to a call with the school receptionist confirming that the sports fleece that costs £58.99 online isn’t an obligatory part of PE kit, an evening of speed-dating teachers through parents’ evenings, and the occasional email from a form tutor about a piece of missed homework.
Primary school is much more intimate, an apparently benign gathering of parents and teachers we must all attend every morning in order to deposit our children in class at the right time, but which can feel like one of the loneliest places on earth; now I’m older I still feel on the outside, separate. I’m not good at the easy chit-chat the school gate demands; I can’t do the plaits or high ponytails with matching scrunchies and clips like better-organised mothers, and we’re always teetering on the edge of missing the school register.
At the school gate I watch other mothers and marvel at them. It makes me feel confused, as if my peers have found the right answer and I still don’t really know the question. I look at them pushing clean buggies and I don’t know how they manage that. All of the equipment around me that I use to transport or contain the babies – for example, the buggies and car seats, the high chair, the travel cot – have smears of mud or marks of food on them. I understand why the buggy is muddy, since I practically live in a field. But the travel cot?
And at the school gate I’d like to be the mother who has had the forethought to bring a Tupperware box of cut-up chunks of raw vegetables and cheese to take to the park as a snack. Occasionally I find a twist of broken Digestive biscuits, like dry sand, in the bottom of the buggy. The children pounce on them anyway, mashing the crumbs into their faces. Sometimes I feel like a Glastonbury survivor, the red face of the baby tucked behind a fraying crochet blanket, one shoe fallen off, looking confused and hungry and at the end of a very long trip.
I constantly feel wrong-footed, muddled, disorganised around other mothers, but I don’t want Evangeline to feel this. I try not to mind about the fact I know I won’t be part of a WhatsApp group of other mums in class, but after I have admired the name tag on her peg, checked she has her full water bottle and kissed her on the cheek, inhaling something of her before school swallows her, I walk back out of school, quietly counting down the number of years I’ll be at the primary school gate until Lester finishes. I tell myself that eleven years will go in a flash, and then I’ll miss it.
Clover Stroud’s My Wild and Sleepless Nights: A Mother’s Story is out now in paperback, published by Transworld (£8.99). Buy your copy here.