We play together for a while, and I chat to the teachers. They all seem lovely and the atmosphere is warm, caring, and a bit chaotic. I tell my daughter I'm leaving and she confidently informs me that she is fine. But then there's a muddle as I'm told I have to put her shoes back on, and in the resulting faff she seems to lose a bit of confidence. She tells me she doesn't know what or who to play with. A teacher moves in and distracts, and I slip away quick.
Back home, I make a coffee and sit on a rug with the one year old while she plays with cups. I feel quite awful in a way that I hadn't anticipated. For some reason I start thinking about lost loves. In particular I find myself remembering another hot day more than a decade ago when I took a man under whose spell I had completely fallen to Gatwick airport and put him on a flight home to JFK. I made the long drive across London back to my empty flat and sat on my living room floor, feeling too hollowed out even to cry. I wonder why I'm suddenly being visited by this ghost, and then I realise, although the story and the people are so very different, the physical feeling is the same: a sort of pulsating ache from the throat down to the belly, spreading outwards towards empty hands that cannot hold the person they most crave.
I decide to go back. On the way I remind myself not to be offended if she doesn't bat an eyelid on my return. I'm prepared to find her not missing me in the slightest and immersed in a fun game. She isn't. As I come round the corner I catch sight of her, sat by herself under a tree in the playground. She looks worried, lonely, lost. I get another ghostly visitation as I remember so clearly that feeling of being left out of the game, and see myself as a child, sitting and watching the others play, from under a different tree. As she sees me and her sister her face lights up and she rushes towards us and we throw our arms around each other. I really feel like I'm going to cry, but I swallow it for fear of looking a total idiot.
We play for a bit longer before the session ends. I feel I'm all over the place emotionally and it's manifesting itself by an inner nitpicking and fault finding session with everything I see. Some of the girls have been playing with the dressing up box and I notice it contains a selection of high heeled shoes in little girl sizes. I know I would never have something like this at home and I don't like the idea of my daughter wearing them. A little boy does show-and-tell and has come dressed as a Devil. I know my daughter doesn't know what a Devil is and I don't want her to know, either. Surely all these things can wait, I fume to myself.
I know what I'm doing here. By working up this angry energy I'm managing to stave off the real emotions: sadness, loss, grief. The three year old, just like her one year old sister who started walking this week, is moving away from me, and it's hard. From being nestled tight inside my body, they are both becoming more and more individual with each passing day, and it sometimes feels like a wrench even stronger than the pains of labour. And, just as when I gave birth, I know I have to let myself release them.
But I also wonder, is it really necessary, this separation, so young, so soon? The teachers tell me that sometimes the children cry at drop off time and that the staff are well practiced in the art of distraction. But what is really going on in the heart of the 'distracted' child? Have they really forgotten their parent and their need to be near them? And what are we hoping to gain from this enforced apartness, that doesn't always seem to sit well with either parent or child? There's a cultural drive towards independence at work here, and from the cot in the nursery, to the plastic teat, to the pram at arms length, to early weaning, to sleeping through the night, we are bombarded by messages and imagery that tell us that our children should be encouraged to need us less.
I'm aware that my daughter, and her sister after her, might grab Pre-School with both hands and thoroughly love it. I'm aware that I have to allow them to do this. I'm aware that school life will bring great moments of pleasure and pride in their progress and growth. And I'm aware - before you say it - that I need to lighten the fuck up. And yet...and yet. Amidst the demons of the present and the ghosts of the past, something about it still feels at odds with my intuition.