I have known this Boy since he was born. He grew in my belly. He is my dead spit – button nose, dark brown hair, shiny almond-shaped eyes. I have been there for every day of his life caring for him, reading to him, playing with him, suffering his many tantrums and meltdowns, and he suffering mine. And in one moment, he has revealed himself to his dad and I as we have never seen him. How could we spend so many days together, and me not see the person he is becoming?
“When I grow up, I want to be a mountain climber,” the Boy proclaims as he’s climbing the third or fourth set of steps. We can’t see the top of the track, which is meandering through the scrub. The path itself is clear and well maintained, but the climb is by no means easy. At times, it seems a never-ending staircase, made of rock and timber and mud. The treads are too numerous to count, and disappear into the distance. I breathe heavily as I help his younger brother make the climb, his every toddler step calculated and laboured, requiring him to swing his whole leg up and over each rise. I hold his hand for balance, or to catch him when he falls, which he does often.
Who is this Boy leading us through the bush? He maintains a confident, steady pace, always striding three or four metres ahead of the group. This can’t be the same boy that whines and ka-flumps himself around every time we make the seven minute walk to the village shops. This can’t be the same boy who won’t play outside unless someone ‘keeps him company’.
“Hey, look at this!” Boy 1 exclaims, darting off the track to point out a hole in a tree. “I wonder who lives here? It looks like a snake burrow” he wonders out loud, crouching and poking at the mossy trunk. His daddy and I catch up and look on, nodding and speculating who might call the tree home. Before reaching a conclusion, the Boy is off, again at a brisk pace, keeping a distance between himself and the rest of the family.
Along the track, I think about how I’ve often felt lost as a parent. Each new challenge emerges out of a fog, posing another unexpected fork in the road. I find myself temporarily paralysed and indecisive about which path is ‘the right one’.
I remember feeling relief after Boy 1’s first birthday. Have baby: Tick. Start family: Tick. Two big items ticked off Life’s Great To Do List. Babies are a lot of hard work – guess work – but toddlers: they’re easy, right? Now that they can move and they’re learning to talk? Standing on the summit of Baby Mountain, I didn’t see the mountain range stretching beyond it, with bigger mountains, sharper rocks, obscure paths and slippery surfaces meandering through the wilderness of childhood. Nobody said babies had personalities, that they needed to become socialised and learn boundaries. Didn’t that happen all it’s own? For me, the realisation that the parenting journey was for life was one of the biggest lessons I’ve grappled with as a mum. That 3kg newborn seemed so light and delicate, but the weight of being the parent of that newborn is infinite. It was harder to get my pen license in Grade Four than to become a mum.
Lately in our journey, we’ve been stuck in the same spot, unable to traverse that tricky pass of Boyhood: “Why won’t this child listen? Why won’t he do as he’s told? Why is he so grumpy?” Yet, here we find ourselves in the Tasmanian wilderness, and the Boy is showing us the way. The world is unfolding before him, and he is traversing it with confidence and natural curiosity, and we are mere passengers on his journey, following in his size 12 footsteps.
We went to Tasmania for a break from the hum of our domestic life. I never imagined we would get such a glimpse into our Boy, and such insight into our journey as his parents. I now understand why I’ve always felt so lost. I felt lost because I wasn’t the one leading the way: the Boy was. I thought I was holding the map, but really, I was just there as his backup crew, his pack mule. At first I carried him as a soft, warm, bundle: once he could walk, I held his hand. Once he could run, I carried his water and snacks, and now I just watch as he walks ahead, finding his own way. There is no map, only a marching beat inside his head. He follows it with his head and his heart. And to see him take on the world with such inquisitiveness and imagination, I am so clouded by pride and love that I can’t even see the path ahead.