You know that dream where you show up to school and you look down and realize you forgot to get dressed? Not even in pajamas, you are somehow completely and totally naked? Well, I’m fairly certain my dreams last night were the first-time school parent equivalents.
In this dream, I overslept causing my littlest one to miss her first day of spielgruppe (Switzerland’s preschool) and giving me only 11 minutes to get my oldest up and ready for kindergarten and my feet were dragging behind my body like I was running through water. In real life, the day before, I’d already packed both girls’ bags and I was feeling good. Yet still, some sort of anxiety, my old friend, must have been tickling my subconscious. After all of the anticipation of more “me time,” I have been shocked by my tenderness and big emotions as my children start preschool and kindergarten.
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The kids couldn’t be more ready
My 5-year-old couldn’t be more ready to start kindergarten. She adores kids of all ages and stripes. Her excitement bubbles over into frenzied gallops around playgrounds when a new person crosses her path. Everyone is her friend. Every new experience is welcomed with open arms. But my emotions haven’t caught up.
I’ve never been a super sappy mom. I don’t usually sit and ogle my kids and bask in the glory of their presence. It drives me crazy when people say: “enjoy every moment because it goes so fast.” I don’t enjoy and have never enjoyed and will never miss certain things: changing my kids diapers, endless nights waking up every 45 minutes, painful breastfeeding or that moment when one of my people start freaking the heck out in the middle of the checkout line and everyone is staring at me. Nope. Send these days on their way with pleasure.
But lately, I have developed a stealthy emotional overdrive when passing random milestones: it hit me hard when we cleared out a significant stash of baby stuff, or the day that I decided to finally get my oldest girl’s gnarly hair cut. It was long and knotty and her baby mullet had grown out into a split-ended ringlet that spun a good three inches below the rest of her hair line. I marched her to the salon, squeezed into a walk-in slot and smiled as she was spritzed and detangled. But the moment the scissors hit her hair, the white strands plopping to the floor, I turned into sappy mush mom, emotions ablaze and raw.
How emotions sneak up on us
I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t even feel connected to my emotions. I wondered why the heck I was crying at a silly haircut. Four-year-olds have haircuts and my kid definitely needed one. But there I was, wet cheeked and snapping pictures, scooping up the severed curls for what might one day be a treasured keepsake.
Then came June’s kindergarten introduction day, a two-hour meet-up for kids with their teachers and classmates. I’d been taking her to drop-off playgroup for a year in the very same building. You’d think I’d have been fine. I thought I was fine. In fact, I hadn’t even thought of my own readiness until she strapped on her inside shoes, walked into the room with a pile of new friends and suddenly my heart hid in my throat, my eyes started leaking and I was left shocked. Though I should have been clued in with the haircut nonsense, I felt like I had been emotionally blindsided. I had become “that mom”.
Suddenly my girl, whose attitude and eye rolls seemed so big at home (I often DREAMED of sending her off somewhere — does Americorps take 5-year-olds?), seemed so tiny and impressionable, so open and so completely unaware of what the school years will bring. All at once, my girl seemed vulnerable. It’s something every parent knows, of course, but somehow we see past all of that so that we can function from minute to demanding minute. So when they leave our care, that magical shield that obscures our vision is lifted and no matter how many tiny steps we have taken toward giving them independence, passing our little ones on to these unknown faces is a shock to the heart.
There is a huge part of me filled with pride. I wish for my daughters a life filled with challenge and triumph and discovery. And yet I know that along with these things will come hurt and embarrassment and fear. A part of me would love if life came with a check list: yes please to intellectual challenge and beautiful friendships, no thanks to bullies. But knowing my own path, I know that the greatest self discovery comes from facing the things we’d wish away for our children and learning to choose wisely and with character and heart.
The big day is finally here
Today was the first day of kindergarten for my oldest, and preschool for my youngest, and I sat in a quiet house and thought: “OK, this is actually really good. I’m ready now. They’re ready.”
No one struggled as I dropped them off and I think I may have had all of my cries now. I’m slowly wrapping my brain around this new routine. Learning new schedules, new groups of parents and kids and lists, organizing my time so that I actually do the things I say I want to do (hello, more yoga!). I am excited for my girls, for all of our friends on this path, for their big new world opening up for them. I’m excited for this phase of our family life, with new branches sprouting independence for all of us.
And so my role transitions from one of presenting experiences to them to one of supporting their own experiences; from one of protection to one of compassion; from one at the center to one that will move gradually toward periphery.
If I could keep you little
A couple of summers ago, my mom bought a book for us to keep at her house, a bedtime story for vacation. It’s called If I Could Keep You Little by Marianne Richmond and her words sums it up nicely: “If I could keep you little, I’d keep you next to me. But then I’d miss you growing into who you’re meant to be.”
Don’t be fooled, though. Soon enough, knowing me, I’ll be complaining that the school days aren’t long enough for me to accomplish anything on my “oh so realistic” to-do list.
So all of you parents riding that line between holding on and letting go, I wish you loads of strength to ride out these first few days of the school year and all the best for the big adventures ahead.
Tips for handling surprising emotions
- Try to reframe any sense of loss into a sense of new adventures. Our kids will still need us, but just as we moved from milk to solids, the form that their need takes will change but never really go away.
- Time apart makes time together even more special. Consider things you can share, like starting a school journal you work on together to document / draw any fun experiences at school.
- Create a projects folder to collect all of the art and school work your kids will be bringing home in droves.
- Smile at the other parents during drop off. Chances are several of them are newbies, too, and you might strike up a conversation with other parents in your shoes.
- Look ahead a couple of weeks and think about how the new routine will be settling in over time. One day soon you’ll be ahead of the bumps and into a groove.
This post contains an affiliate link for the book If I Could Keep You Little by Marianne Richmond. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links I will receive a small commission.
Kindergarten scene via Shutterstock. This post contains affiliate links.