In which she remains stubbornly unsaved

Then I blinked and Steven was nearly three years old.

How does that happen? What happens to all those cute, drooling bundles that hang around their prams, doing little more than generate tons of dirty nappies? Where did this other boy come from – this wide-eyed, serious child who could name every internal organ at two and write his name at three? Steven was a sensitive soul who scared me sometimes – if you think a newborn is intimidating, try spending five minutes with a three-year-old whose favourite word is “Why”. You will feel a strong urge to run away screaming, as your brain liquefies and dribbles out of your ears. The boiling point of human brain matter, it turns out, is the approximately twenty-second repeat rate of the question “Why?” in any given conversation.

I realised with a shock one day that he was no longer a mewling, leaky pudding relying on me simply for physical survival. Here was an intelligent, real person, who required far more complicated actions than handiness with a Wet Wipe.

“Ho, ho! You poor, naive sap,” jeers Future Tracy. “Try being a single mother to a moody, silent twelve-year-old boy! Ain’t nobody else gonna talk Erections 101, darlin’. It’s all on you. You’ll be begging to explain the Jesus/aliens/Father Christmas connection instead.”

Babies don’t come with a manual. Everybody knows that. But when you come right down to it, really, one baby is pretty much like another. They eat, they sleep, they cry, they poo. And then they do it all again. Your job is to make sure the proportions are correct. It’s not that complicated. I don’t mean to burst your comfy bubble, but it’s true. Once you get the hang of it, babies are easy. Don’t look at me like that – I know all about colic and sleepless nights. Hard work, for sure. But easy to understand – eat-sleep-cry-poo. Figure out which goes where and you’ve got it waxed.

There are many reasons why babies are preferable to later models:

They don’t end every conversation with, “I hate you!” and a head-splitting door slam.

They don’t talk back and confuse you with cunning arguments.

They don’t ask difficult religious questions.

They don’t demand Liquorice Allsorts for supper.

Any dumbass with a boob and a goodly supply of Pampers can get by just fine. But try telling that to the mother of a newborn. You’re likely to get yelled at and cried on.

Then, just as you think you’re getting the hang of this baby thing, the little horrors turn on you. At roughly three years of age, everything changes – cuteness levels drop and continue to do so until the age of twelve, when any remaining cuteness is shed in favour of monosyllabic surliness. Baby books should, at this stage, be replaced by The Art of War and perhaps selected works by Machiavelli. Forget Chicken Souping your way through it. You’ll need less of the Gratitude Journal and more of the Jedi Mind Trick. What we need is a parenting book written by Yoda: “Grounded, you are. To your room, go you will.”

I like that.

But at three? If a manual existed for three-year-olds like Steven, it would have to be the one translated into English from Chinese by a committee of dyslexic Norwegians, remaindered in Sudan and burned as fuel to boil water – impossible to come by. He wasn’t your average gooey-nose-picking sweetie-gobbler. For Steven, getting his hands sticky was a major catastrophe. Likewise if two different food types touched each other on his plate (did I mention the OCD factor?). Clothes and shoe shopping was a nightmare – scratchy labels had to be removed immediately upon purchase and much of the coolest stuff avoided because it wasn’t “comfy”. He’s like that to this day. Fashion is not on his radar. Never mind fashion, it’s hard enough getting him to wear pants without holes in them. Some day, when you’re not looking, my son, those damn fluffy dishwater-coloured tracksuit pants are going to fall prey to a mysterious washing line thief. Or something.

In 1997, the concept of twelve years old didn’t exist for me. Wet dreams, girl trouble and long division were all so far in the future, I could safely ignore them for now. Three years was momentous enough for me, angelic baby and chubby toddler things of the past, nappies and bottles a distant memory. On his way to being – gasp – a preschooler.

Preschool! I was excited. A whole new world of learning and playing and friends would open up for Steven. I pictured packing healthy lunches – muffins, carrot sticks and elaborate sandwiches. I saw him kissing me goodbye in the morning, happily skipping off to play with his friends in the sandpit. I imagined finger paintings on the fridge, the wheels on the bus going round and round, sweet, rosy-cheeked teachers reading stories on the mat. It was going to be so much fun.

Oh, what was that? Did you hear that ominous roll of thunder and the howl of the eldritch wolf? Again? Oh yeah. I should have known.

When it came to preschools, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice. I avoided the most obviously dodgy playschools advertised in the local paper – those run by hard-faced, chain-smoking women in ski-pants and the one where misbehaving children were rumoured to be locked in the toilet. Besides those, the preschools in the area were all run on Sound Christian Principles, which, by the way, doesn’t really mean Love Thy Neighbour and Jesus Loves Me and All Things Bright and Beautiful. Surprising, isn’t it? Beat Children Into Submission While Brainwashing With Cultish Dogma would be more accurate. I sure was shocked. Unfortunately, by the time I figured this out, my poor little boy was in the clutches of the born-again crazies and it took some ugly scenes to get him out.

The first school I went to see was a definite no. I considered it because it was one of the few with no religious reference in the name. I thought this indicated some inclination towards moderation and non-fanaticism. Silly me.