I’ll never forget my son’s first word. “Mmmmnnn!”
You were in your pram and pointing at the sky. Thanks to that mysterious knack all parents have of understanding their child’s early, garbled speech, I knew what you were trying to say. Moon!
The emotion of that moment hit me with an almost physical force; a dizzy mix of love and astonishment. There couldn’t be a moon of course, it was daytime, but it hardly mattered — you were talking! I exploded with pride, and bent down to stroke your cheek. “Clever boy! Moon!” I cooed. A gummy smile broke out around the edges of your dummy. Still stroking your soft skin, I added, “But no, bubba, it’s the daytime. There is no moon.”
Your smile vanished. Your big green eyes narrowed, a look you employ to this day when patronising grown-ups think they’re smarter than you.
“MMMMNNN,” you repeated impatiently, jabbing a chubby finger at the sky.
I smiled at your plucky confidence and glanced up. Damn it. Yes it was daytime. But yes, you cheeky little sod, there in the bright blue sky was the moon.
Those magical early milestones are some of the greatest highs you’ll ever experience as a parent, although their impact lessens over time. The first time they count to 20 isn’t quite as exciting as the first time they count to three.
The first time they sleep in a big bed doesn’t have the same thrill as the first time they sleep through the night. We all send excited texts to family members to report the day our little one sings an entire Wiggles song by heart. Those texts become SOS messages once they’ve memorised 20 more.
Now he is 12, those really big developmental firsts that came in rapid fire when you were little are rarer.
Except for one.
The day you did something better than I could do it myself. And I mean much better.
The day you sat down at a piano and began to play. And you were really, really good.
It was Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and it was jazzy and soulful and uplifting and it made me catch my breath.
The finger paintings and counting to 10 were thrilling but this was the first time I watched you, my now-not-so-little-baby progress beyond anything I could ever have taught you. Don’t get me wrong, I can still play a bit of schoolgirl-level piano — my rousing rendition of “Chopsticks” is widely admired — but I could never, ever do this.
You had been taking piano lessons for just a short while and this was the first time you’d played something that had a real difficulty to it. Your fingers danced across the keyboard as effortlessly as a bird spreading its wings.
My feelings hit me like a tsunami, and yes I cried a bit, because that’s what mums do. In a rush, I remembered every musical moment we’d shared together when you were little — the songs we’d play in the car and discuss (“Do you like the way it changes key in the second verse?”), watching your great-grandmother Nin, a jazz pianist in her youth, dance her arthritic fingers across a keyboard like it was 1949. The times you’d absently drum out rhythm sections from songs you liked on your highchair tray.
This was the moment I realised that I may have helped plant the seeds of your love for music but you grew those seeds into a beautiful tree all by yourself.
I noticed another, faintly wistful feeling. A small sense of loss. You’re growing up. You’re doing things on your own, reaching beyond those early, tiny “firsts” I helped you make.
Later, it occurred to me that I must be doing something right as your mum. My job isn’t to teach you forever. My job is to teach you just enough so you know how to learn for yourself.
Since that day you’ve played me a hundred other songs, each more skilled and polished than the last. Watching your child do something that you admire not just because they’re your child, but because it’s something objectively skilled, brings a richer, deeper pride than the feeling that came with those baby achievements. And it fills my heart to know that there will be many more to come.
My darling boy, you are my greatest accomplishment. But I’m proud to say that from this point forward your accomplishments are entirely yours.