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My son’s return to nursery is unexpectedly traumatic – for both of us

Photograph: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

My son wails as I leave him for the first of his settling days in his new nursery. His old one won’t be back for some time so we’ve taken the step of placing him in a bigger one down the road. He hasn’t been out of the presence of me or his mum once in the past three months, so it comes as a shock when I hand him to new carers. He bawls his head off, drawing confused glances from his new classmates, who in that great gesture of infant sympathy, pause their block work for a few tender seconds before resuming.

Only a psychopath would be unmoved by his little face, crumpling like a chewed-up toffee

I’m only slightly offended that he stops crying once I leave. I know this because I spend the first few minutes with my ear to the door like an Edwardian servant hoping to pick up gossip from a bedchamber. I retreat once I hear his sobs recede, spending the next two hours in the wellbeing area, shocked at how rattled I am.

All week I’d been joking about how hard it would be, but these jokes failed to inoculate me against the reality. Only a psychopath would be unmoved by his little face, crumpling like a chewed-up toffee as I peeled his tiny fingers from my shoulders and handed him to these pleasant strangers. Nevertheless, I sit there, hot-eyed and bemused, feeling like I’ve sold my child to passing fur traders for a pound of mutton.

What’s affecting is, no matter how necessary and momentary the shock he’s feeling is, he has no way of properly separating it from, well, a proper separation. For him, this truly is abandonment. Often we’ve wondered if the socialisation he’d become accustomed to could have been undone in the past three months, even temporarily. This appeared to be a fairly resounding yes.

It’s hard to know what a toddler remembers. Nicholas Day, author of Baby Meets World, writes that ‘children a few months under two retain memories of experiences a year earlier – half their lifetime ago. But they won’t retain those memories into adulthood: No one remembers their second birthday party.’ While I’m delighted that we can throw him a decidedly sub-par shindig at the end of this month without hearing about it when he’s a teen, it also means his experience of time is more different to ours than I’d realised. If his recall only stretches back 52 weeks, then the 13 he’s just gone through in isolation is a quarter of his life as he remembers it. If you were to judge things on that relative basis, it’s roughly equivalent to me coming out of a lockdown spanning nine whole years.

I’ve finished becoming an online expert in childhood memory when my two hours are up. The nursery door opens, and a sing-song whoosh of delighted toddler speak spills into the corridor. My son’s is one among them. He points and laughs with the delight of someone who had forgotten they ever had a dad and is delighted to discover I still exist. Some things are, I guess, more memorable than others.

Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats

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