The urchin is in a new daycare, and she weeps as I leave her every morning. She walks tentatively into her room, then turns and cries and runs back, arms out, tears flowing. When Mother Pukka collects her in the evening, she weeps again. They tell us that she’s happy in between.
There can be few sensations more unnatural to a parent than handing your bawling child to a stranger while she stares you in the eye and pleads for you to stay. Whenever I turn to walk away, it leaves a gnawing in the pit of my belly for the rest of the day.
But we need to work, so we drop her off at the urchin farm every morning, along with dozens of other raggedly functioning parents. As at her last place, she’ll settle eventually, and soon be running in without a look back.
I know this, because she has been in daycare since she was four months old (she was born in The Netherlands, where maternity leave is shorter). At that age, she was too young to tell much difference between me and a hat-stand. She began at her last place aged around 18 months, a period when she was regularly slapping me in the face and telling me, ‘go way!’
At each of those, I could happily sling her in the door and run away to the relative calm of work. Much like a stray tabby, she was happy with anyone who would give her milk and snacks.
But now the wobbly baby is becoming an actual person. She has opinions and tastes, distinctive expressions and empathy for others. When her three-year-old cousin started blubbing over his Christmas dinner, the urchin hopped off her mother’s lap saying, ‘I better give him a cuddle’. And she said it with the quiet confidence of a master bridge-builder assessing a wonky table leg.
When she first arrived I was fond of her, of course. I gawped in awe like every other new dad, and became a soppy sentimentalist overnight, quietly welling up at the sad bits in films. But most of what I did for her was through a sense of duty, rather than choice. A case of, ‘we’ve had this thing, now we have to rear it’.
But now that thing is becoming a tiny person, she’s much easier to like. I feel like a particularly loyal collie that just wants to be by its master’s side. The master, in this case, being a 2-year-old and prone to outrageous tantrums. She makes commands and I scamper off, metophorical tail wagging, to fetch juice or trim the crusts of her toast. I make sure she asks properly, in sentences that end with ‘please’, but there’s no doubt about it: I am now her fetcher, gopher and subservient bum-wiper. And, much as I plan to be strict-but-fair, and to admonish spoiled behaviour, I suspect this might be the case for years to come.
At least, until I’m in a home and she’s changing my nappy.