My 3 year old started nursery yesterday – I mean, proper nursery, in a school. And instead of going for 2 and a half hours every week, he now goes for around 3 hours every morning. Now, I could take this opportunity to do a proper soppy story about how much I’m going to miss him and how there’s a big Daniel-shaped hole at home and how Emily’s face lit up when she saw him at pick-up time. All of those things are true. But I think that if I do, I’ll set my husband away in tears again and I’ll have to shell out for a new keyboard, as crying while typing is not generally recommended. Or I could do one about the time slipping away without me realising it. But then I’ll depress myself and start hunting out wrinkle cream and the like. And I refuse to do that before I’m 30. So the story that follows is my attempt at commemorating the occasion, whilst avoiding these pitfalls. A bit of silliness, really.

The Enemy at the Gates

My palms were sweaty as I unbuckled Harry’s car seat and lifted him out.

“What’s this place called, Mummy?” he asked, in a not-very-excited way.

“This is Big Boy Nursery,” I said, in a trying-not-to-be-too-excited way. “You’re going to play here with the teachers for a little while, and I’ll be back for you later.”

“Oh. Ok.” And he went back to picking up stones along the path. Presumably because he heard his Daddy mention the barbecue he was going to build at the weekend again, and wanted to help out.

We walked slowly up the path together, the picture of First Day At School. Me, my expression on some other planet filled on the one hand with quiet coffee shops and overflowing bubble baths and on the other hand with mountains of ironing and a mysterious black substance that was gradually taking over the fridge. Him, scuffing his toes on the path and gripping my hand, jerking me out of my alternate reality at regular intervals to bend and pick up yet another black pebble. I smiled down at him at one point, then looked ahead and froze. Stopped in my tracks by Them.

I’d met Them before, of course. In our last town, I’d gone dutifully along to the mother and baby groups and They were there. Perfect mums – perfectly coiffed, perfectly made-up, perfectly back in their perfect shapes three seconds after giving birth. Harry was a bit older than Their little ones, and I remember Them staring in horror as he had gone through his Terrible Toddlerhood. I’d once gone round for a coffee at one of Their houses, and made a quick red-faced exit after mopping as much of Harry’s wee off their cream carpets as I could. Their smug smiles as They did a selection of songs in French while serving up home-baked cakes and biscuits still haunted me. I couldn’t remember much about Their children – they’d kind of blended in with the immaculate carpets and walls  and clothes.

And there They were again, a new regiment, but still the enemy. Clustered together in the comfortable way of women who had known each other all their lives. Smart coats, buttoned against the September wind which had suddenly turned summer to winter. I was vaguely aware of children playing in the schoolyard, but my focus flitted between the sanctuary doors which remained firmly shut and the horde of women I would have to go and stand with. I was just grateful we’d made a special effort to get up early that morning, giving me time to brush my hair and remember my shoes. I was pretty sure I’d remembered Harry’s shoes.

“Hello!” beamed one of Them. “First day?” I nodded, squeezing Harry’s hand and feeling tears prick my eyelids. I’d spent ages practicing that, convinced that I would be the most unnatural mother alive if I didn’t have a few tears on his first day. “Yes, me too. Daisy! Leave that boy alone, you’ll scare him silly.” She waved vaguely in the direction of a small group. I blinked in astonishment as I realised she wasn’t crying. The mothers I had met at playgroup had managed to get the art of Distraught Mother tears without ruining Their mascara. But this one wasn’t crying. At all. Just a huge, warm smile. I looked around the group and saw the other mothers with the same expression. “Michelle,” she said, holding out a hand that I realised wasn’t manicured but scarred by playdough stains and chewed nails. “And this is Claire, and Libby, and Rachel.” They each smiled, and I felt my own face relax.

“Maddy,” I said.

“Hey, Maddy,” they chimed. I relaxed further as I looked around the group and saw a splodge of pasta sauce on one coat, a pair of odd Minnie Mouse socks peeking out from scuffed shoes, and countless hairs escaping from a ponytail.

“So,” said Libby, “you got any plans for your morning of freedom, Mad?” Mad? Hey, I kind of liked that…Freedom? But weren’t we supposed to mourn our babies’ passing into childhood?

“I’m off to the hairdresser,” said Rachel. “First cut in three months. Joe! Get your foot off your sister’s head!”

“Ooh, nice,” said Michelle. “Swimming for me. First time since Michael was born I’ll have been by myself. Michael! Drop that worm right now!”

“Me and Libby are off to the coffee shop,” said Claire. “Fancy a cuppa? I’ll treat you to chocolate cake…” I wavered, wondering why I was even considering coffee with Them. A pair of mums went past the gates, pushing pristine strollers and casting scornful glances at our scruffy clothes. Libby snorted.

“Unreal. How anyone has the strength to get all made up first thing when you’ve got kids is beyond me. My make-up is spaghetti sauce half the time. So, you coming Maddy?”

Harry skipped into school, waving casually. I blew him a kiss, and straightened my coat.

“Count me in.”