Tomorrow morning at 9:20 am, my eldest daughter begins her HSC.

She graduated from high school three weeks ago and it feels like my job as her parent is nearly done. Yet the time has raced by so quickly. It seems like only a nanosecond ago that we were contemplating going to big school (and I mean Infants). I remember leaving her in a panic on her first day at kindergarten and heading straight to a counsellor at the local Family Health Centre, looking for strategies to help her adjust, only to discover in the course of our conversation (she was a good counsellor) that it was me who had the separation anxiety, not my child.

You see, I didn’t have an easy introduction into parenthood. My daughter was born five weeks premature, and, although initially healthy, she was unlucky enough to pick up the virus that is the biggest killer of babies under one, particularly premature babies. It is called RSV positive bronchiolitis, and the microbes that multiplied in her immature lungs and tiny bronchial tubes took us on the roller coaster ride of our life.

Suffice to say, she was admitted to the Children’s Hospital (after one night at home) and after a few anxious days in the babies’ ward, stopped breathing three times, was resuscitated three times, judged sick enough to get the last neonatal intensive care bed in NSW that night, and intubated.

I learnt my first lesson as a parent the next day. In the coffee shop of the hospital I met up with the resident grief counsellor (a neonatologist who had lost a child himself). ‘Danger is reality,’ he said, even before we had exchanged pleasantries. ‘Safety is an illusion. Terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. There is nothing special about you and there is nothing special about Polly (my daughter).’

Perhaps this looks brutal written down in black and white, but all I felt when I heard it was relief. I had been driving myself crazy trying to work out what I had done, what I could do to change her situation. Thanks to him, I accepted her fate was out of my hands. I learnt, then and there, that I could not do her breathing for her.

She recovered, obviously, with no lasting ill effects except a tendency towards asthma in childhood, and a phobia about anyone touching her feet. They used to give her heel pricks, you see, and the aptly named ‘stab gases’ to make sure that the oxygen exchange in her blood was as it should be. When she came home we discovered that our eldest daughter was (and is) a handful. Fierce, assertive, funny and direct. Once when I was complaining bitterly about how difficult she was, how she insisted on fighting about everything, my husband quietly said: ‘That’s why we’ve still got her.’

Sometimes I worry that it is her younger sister who has carried the weight of Polly’s difficult start in life; that we have unconsciously asked her, as we asked ourselves, to defer to Polly, to give her more room, to allow her to be difficult and selfish and demanding. Our expectations of our eldest are different, because we remain, on some level, simply glad she is still alive. We do not do this consciously or by design, I do not think we can help it.

Life and death events do not disappear from your life. Their legacy forms you and affects your life (and, unfortunately, other people’s) in unexpected ways. Or so it has been for us, anyway.

The one thing all the doctors warned us about when we took her home was that she should never smoke. So what was the first thing she did on hitting adolescence?

She was a difficult adolescent; suddenly, shockingly, tall, willowy and beautiful. The way the world looked at her changed, almost overnight. I remember leaving a suburban restaurant where we had been dining with a couple of neighbours and their kids and realising the impact of the new way she looked. I was the last to leave, walking behind my 13-year-old daughter. Every man in the place, from 16 to 60, turned to stare as she passed. I wanted to wave a banner saying ‘She’s 13’, but all I could do was glare at them.

Most people think being beautiful would be nothing but a pleasure. Before being Polly’s mother, I would have said so too, never having been beautiful myself. There is no doubt it is powerful and heady and that there is pleasure in it; but like everything else, it exacts its price. She became even feistier, approaching the world with her dukes up. She developed a tough, pugnacious, don’t-mess-with-me persona. She had to. It was the only way this 13-year-old knew to keep the world at bay.

I remember leaving Roseville Cinema one school holidays having seen a movie with Polly and her sister. It was mid-afternoon on a suburban weekday. A Bedford van emblazoned with the name of a plumber’s firm roared up then screeched theatrically across three lanes of road to halt beside us. The three men in the van hung out the window yelling suggestively at my teenage daughter. She ignored them and their remarks. I stood gobsmacked. ‘Does that happen often?’ I asked. ‘All the time,’ she shrugged.

Year 9 was a nightmare. At parent-teacher night I felt like I was being poked with sharp sticks. She had a bad attitude, was arrogant, lazy, rude, provocative. I slumped in front of the last teacher, a woman about my age with a daughter about Polly’s age. I braced myself for the onslaught, but the woman just smiled sympathetically and patted my hand. ‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘the woman before you was in tears.’

Teachers like that, people like that, make parenting bearable.

Parenting is hard and this parent, anyway, has never really known what she was doing. Since the very beginning, I have no sooner got used to one stage in my child’s development than they have moved on to the next, leaving me confused and floundering in their wake. I am always one step behind them, one step off the pace, but I keep running, determined to hang on to their coat-tails, to stay connected, to stay in touch.

And how we are blamed, judged and found wanting. The expectations society currently has of parents, of what we are expected to control and be responsible for, are unbelievable. Against all societal pressures we are expected to control their weight, behaviour, mood, psyche, sex lives, drinking, drug taking, choice of friends, educational level, future success, intellectual ability, study habits, discipline, safety, appearance and health — emotional, physical and psychological — while also maintaining our marriage, ageing parents and economic viability. Phew! No wonder having kids is something people are thinking twice about.

But I wouldn’t have missed it for all the leisure time in the world, particularly as she gave up smoking a year ago. I don’t know how she will go in the HSC and, much as I try to have a healthy attitude and not care too much, she knows, and I know, that I do care. I want her to do well. She is not a natural scholar. She is bright, and brilliant at music and drama, but not academic. I was just starting to feel optimistic about her chances in this nasty final exam when we were sent on another roller coaster ride.

Last Sunday night, her adored boyfriend dumped her without explanation or warning bringing me hard up against the very first, and most important, thing I learnt as a parent: that we are at our most helpful when we accept that we’re completely helpless.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.