As his eldest daughter turns 5, Greg Bruce reflects on the milestones a child - and parents - face as they evolve
From the time we first started sending Tallulah out into the world without us, as a 3-year-old, our understanding of what goes on in her life — both what happens and how she feels about it — has fallen away precipitously.
"How was kindy today?" we have asked two or three days a week for the past two years.
"Good," she has replied.
"What did you do?" we have then asked.
"Can't remember," she has said.
This has happened not once or twice, not even regularly, but without fail every single day — essentially the same words, hundreds of times, in the car, or at dinner or while playing a kitty game or horsey game in the lounge — for the last two years.
A handful of times she has subsequently spilled some additional morsel of information. Once, for instance, she mentioned that she'd done a puzzle.
Without trying to look too excited, we asked the obvious follow-up: "What was the puzzle?"
"Can't remember," she said.
It's not just what happened in her day, she's been a closed book on anything we might show an interest in.
"How are you feeling about X?" we might ask.
"I don't want to talk about it," she will reply.
We have never stopped trying to learn about her life and she has never stopped refusing to tell us.
Possibly it's genetic. My wife's parents used to call her "Zanna Don't Talk About It Gillespie", which surprises me because my experience of her as an adult is the extreme opposite.
It seems so unfair to Zanna's parents. They have loved her for more than three decades with a purity I will never match and she has rewarded them by telling me about her life with a depth they will never hear. I understand now that this, too, will be my fate as a parent and it hurts in advance.
But Tallulah is still only 4, or at least she was when the following exchange took place, and so her underdeveloped self-protection filter sometimes fails and her feelings leak out in spite of herself. When they do, they're so beautiful and poignant I can hardly bear it.
It was the night before her 5th birthday and she was lying in bed, in her purple and white striped cat onesie pyjamas, so excited about the LOL doll and Pikmi Pop she knew she was getting in the morning that she was almost pure energy. I gave her a cuddle and kiss goodnight and said, "I can't believe you're going to be a school girl! I remember my first day at school."
She became quite still and looked at me in such a way that I realised this had never occurred to her. I could see her processing and I assumed the results of the processing would never be made available to me.
Then she said: "Were you nervous?"
Like so many things she and her two younger siblings have said over the past few years, it was the cutest thing I had ever heard. I wanted to hug all the worry out of her.
I knew enough about parenting to know that I should not, under any circumstances, tell her I had been enormously excited about my first day of school, that primary school was almost entirely easy and delightful for me, that I was well-adjusted and during Star Wars games I was always Luke Skywalker.
I said, "Of course I was nervous! Everybody's nervous on their first day at school. It's normal to be nervous."
I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be fine, but I just couldn't.
One thing I have often said to Zanna about parenting is, "Our job is to prepare our children to live without us." I can't remember where I plagiarised this from and it actually means nothing anyway because it can be pressed into service in almost any argumentative direction.
Do we best prepare our kids to live without us by putting them into childcare when they're babies? Or by keeping them at home with us so they don't suffer major emotional trauma?
I'm pretty sure I wasn't there for Tallulah's first day of kindy, just after she turned 3. I know that she begged Zanna not to leave and that Zanna did eventually leave. I know that she sat at the glass door overlooking the carpark and cried real tears as Zanna drove away crying real tears.
I know that she sat crying at the door every day for months as Zanna left, then after those months she stopped the crying and replaced it with pining.
As our children grow, their lives slip away from us incrementally until, I assume, one day we no longer have any idea who they are.
Sooner or later they have to leave us. Sooner? Or later?
We have tried many approaches and philosophies and truisms to fix our constant parenting failures. For a while it was something called RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), which I understood to be something about treating children with more respect than normal. But then Zanna was kicked out of the RIE Facebook group for voicing support for another mother she felt had been unfairly kicked out of the group and I came to think there must be something morally defunct with a system administered by people who would punish somebody for supporting another person.
No system has worked for me, mainly, I suspect, because I am doubtful of anyone who claims to have the answers. I am doubtful of Tony Robbins, wealth gurus, career gurus and Leighton Smith. I am doubtful of Aristotelianism, consequentialism and Kantianism. I am a doubter because I suspect there are no good answers. I'm not sure if I thought this before I had children, because that time has been erased. All I know for sure is that my primary weapon in the war of life right now is doubt.
The RIE people always had an answer and I hated that. "What would the RIE people say/do in this situation?" became an ever-present in our house. They would always have an answer, I knew, because Zanna almost always supplied it on their behalf. But could they, in such a dynamic environment, remove every variable necessary to make that answer scientifically sound and verifiable? If not, were their ideas any better than mine?
From the time our children are babies, we begin to convince ourselves we have some things figured out, but with time and hindsight we discover how often we're wrong. This, I think, may be the most valuable thing I've so far learned about being a parent: many of my decisions are objectively not very good and some are very, very bad.
Had we done the right things to prepare our daughter for school? Was she ready? Would she ever be ready? What did it mean to be ready? Would I ever stop asking questions?
I thought I would cry; Zanna thought she would cry; we weren't sure whether Tallulah would cry.
"What do you do if there are tears?" Zanna had asked the teacher, presumably deliberately not specifying the tears' source, during our second and final school visit prior to Tallulah's first day.
The visits had been on consecutive Thursday mornings and, both times, Zanna and I had sat on children's chairs at the back of the classroom, watching the students answer questions about what day it was, what the weather was like and counting to 20 and back again.
When the bell rang for interval at the end of the first visit, we walked out of the classroom and rounded a corner on to the playground and into the climactic scene of a David Attenborough nature documentary. It was a swarm, a horde, a stampede. It was the state of nature, The Lord of the Flies. My tiny daughter could not survive here. I wanted to pick her up and have her homeschooled.
During the second visit, just before the bell went for interval, she stood on the mat with the rest of her class and danced to a video of the Justin Timberlake song Can't Stop The Feeling from the movie Trolls, while the teacher talked to the visiting parents about homework. I didn't realise the teacher was talking until she was nearly finished because I was completely fixated on Tallulah. There she was, in among all those other children, happily, enthusiastically and hopefully trying to follow the actions, just like all the others. She would be okay.
We took her to the small, functional room that served as the uniform shop and stood outside the cubicle as she tried on T-shirts and small navy culottes. The radio played Rod Stewart's The Motown Song, then George Michael's Careless Whisper. Zanna whispered to me, "With this music, it could be when we were at school."
The whole school experience was suffused with nostalgia — the shape and style of the classroom blocks, the smell of the classrooms, the radiator running along the wall, the rotary pencil sharpener, the quiet thrill of the library. It was like being back there, decades ago, with all the joy, potential and uncomplicated emotion of being between 5 and 10.
Lining the walls of one of the hallways were a collection of stories children had written on the theme of "friends". They were all pretty cute but the one that really grabbed me read: "My good friend is my dad. He is a bit tall."
Those two simple sentences demonstrated, I thought, a rare level of care and thought, a child engaging with the power of language to demonstrate his depth of feeling for his parent. "A bit tall", in particular, was so evocative and rich with significance. I yearned for the day Tallulah would write something like that. If she did, I knew it would be about her mum.
We drove her to school on her first day. She sat quietly in the back alongside her younger sister and brother. I assumed she was ruminating and worrying but it turned out she was looking at a photo of a friend on Zanna's phone.
We took a photo of her in front of the school sign. She smiled in a way that didn't appear to be forced, then she walked along in front of the sign and read each letter out to us. I was so proud of how fast she did it.
In the classroom, the teacher asked us how we were feeling. "Good," I said — but shakily.
Tallulah put away her drink bottle and sat on the mat with the other children. Zanna took some photos. The teacher asked that we not put them on social media. Tallulah smiled in a way that looked genuine. We each gave her a kiss and a cuddle. She asked to give her 3-year-old sister a kiss and cuddle, then we left. Nobody cried.
The night before, she had collected our supermarket delivery from the front door and organised her siblings to help put it away. It was the first real sign I had seen that our children might one day help relieve some of the pressure their existence has bestowed on us. It was also the cutest thing I'd ever seen — Tallulah standing there on a stool while Clara and 18-month-old Casper handed her rolled oats, baby food, beef stock and paper towels.
It was one of many things I had noticed recently that had convinced me she was growing up, although it was possible I was just looking for reassurance.
A few days earlier, while I was unbuckling Casper from his car seat, she climbed into the front and started fossicking around in the centre console. She said, "I know how Mummy bought the LOL doll for my birthday online."
"How?" I asked.
"With this ginormous coin," she said, holding up an Australian 50c piece.
I said, "I think you might be right."
After we dropped her off on her first day, I was on my way to work, walking across St Patrick's Square, when I saw a man a few years younger than me pushing a baby buggy. The baby was only a few months old. The man had a look on his face that I remembered from my own early daddy days: bewilderment.
I wanted to tell him everything would be fine, but I didn't. In all good conscience I couldn't. Who could say for sure?
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