“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!
(Written yesterday, August 27, 2012)
Today was my girl's day. Kindergarten day.
I stayed up late last night, trying to get everything organized and compartmentalized so we could be on time for this first day of school (a huge accomplishment for me, O Tardy Woman). I cut her sandwich into dolphin shapes, filled her backpack, stuck a note in her lunch, made sure her outfit rested ready and waiting in my bedroom, charged all of the camera batteries.
I was ready.
In every way but the one that really mattered: my emotional state.
In the morning, it was me who awoke with a sense of dread. Anxiety blanketed me. I hate change. I often dislike new things, good and bad. I have been known to freak out royally when my schedule gets off-kilter. This morning, it felt like a first day at a new job—exciting, and terrifying. I tried to scoop away the sludge of panic and the urge to call everything off and go back to "normal." I had to be the strong mom. I had to be a leader and show my girl new things are new adventures. Even if I didn't believe that right then. So I began the day.
As I finished braiding my girl's hair, she placed her beloved new purchase on her head. A glorious pink sequined newsboy cap. She looked beyond adorable. And about 12 years old. Throughout the car ride to school, the insane parking situation (did I really need to park about five blocks from campus? Yes, yes I did), her brother's fussiness (thanks, little man, for staying up three hours past your bedtime last night) and the blazing heat at 8:30 in the morning, my girl kept that hat securely on her head. It just melted my heart to see her looking so grown up.
Merging with other parents, we were absorbed into the tide of backpack-clad five-year-olds pouring onto campus. All I saw was my girl swallowed up by her huge backpack, her skinny legs nearly jogging to keep up with her NBA-tall daddy, the sun glinting off that pink hat. I nearly began crying right then as we rounded the corner to the kindergarten wing. But I caught myself. No time for tears! I had to be there, be positive, for my baby. She needed me.
Rushing, we got to her new kindergarten classroom and everything then happened so fast, the dreaded drop-off became a non-event—for her. The teacher bustled students inside as I snapped off a few dozen photos. My girl walked confidently in the door, then turned around to look for us. For a split second, I saw the innocent confusion on her face before it dissolved into one of anticipation as she made her way to the backpack hooks and then the reading carpet.
I kept waiting for the regression into baby talk or the leg-clinging. I had a speech prepared about how amazing this new school experience was going to be for her (if I said it enough, maybe I'd start believing it too, I figured). I pictured myself walking her to the carpet, gently disentangling my hand from hers and planting a kiss in her palm just like "The Kissing Hand" story we read at orientation.
Instead, my baby girl skipped away without another glance back. All I could see was the gleam and sparkle of her pink newsboy hat. In that minute, the teacher instructed everyone to turn and wave goodbye to the parents. And it took all I had in me not to grab the tiny art table in a death grip and threaten anyone who dared try to remove me from the premises. Thankfully, I'm too frightened of acting a fool in public, so I allowed myself to be waved out of room K-2, but not before I rushed up to my girl, asking for one more kiss, one more hug.
How did it come to pass that it was me who needed comforting? That I was the one who gently had her hand untangled, who was kissed goodbye and sent on my way with a stoic smile? How was I the one internally kicking and screaming, demanding to be taken away from this new environment and placed back where I knew the rules, where I knew I was safe? How is this first day of kindergarten harder on me than my kindergartener?
I felt so out of place and lost as I made my way outside and shut the classroom door (and I swear it sounded louder than a gunshot in my ears). I knew a few of the moms, but for the most part, I only saw strangers. I felt so much like I did back in the seventh grade. A new kid in a new school surrounded by new people who knew each other. I felt completely out of place. I didn't even know the proper method for drop-off yet much less the rules of volunteering in the classroom or participating in fundraisers.
A few moms reached out to me with friendly gestures, and for that I felt grateful. But I ached for my preschool friends, the moms who saw me in the mornings without makeup or straightened hair, who watched me gain weight and then lose it after my son was born, who knew I'd be the first one to volunteer for the fire station field trip, who would text me funny pictures of their kids.
And that brought on waves of homesickness for my old routine, the preschool building, the teachers who knew my girl so well, lazy mornings watching "Sesame Street" on PBS, even the preschool parking lot! I missed yesterday.
Last night, I thought I was so prepared, but in reality, I wasn't ready in my heart for today. My daughter was, but not me. I kept wanting to run away, run back in time, run to the familiar.
My heart officially broke when, on the way back to my car, I passed the playground. There, having her snack, was my girl. Sitting ramrod straight on the picnic bench, eating her Pirate's Booty, that pink hat gleaming.
And she was all alone.
There was another little girl across the bench from my daughter, also eating her snack. So even though they weren't facing the same way or talking, maybe they were eating together in a preschool kind of way. At least, that's what I told myself.
Before I could hurdle the fence and rush to my girl's side, she confidently got up, tossed away her trash and walked to the playground by herself, where she climbed up the ladder to the jungle gym. Her poise and self-assurance astounded me. Again, how was she so comfortable in this new skin when I felt as jittery and jumpy as a crack addict? How was it that I needed her comforting to feel confident, yet she was fine on her own? She even saw me, huddling by the fence, and did a half-baked wave and a "Hi Mom" before ignoring me.
All morning long, I fought the urge to pull her out of school and homeschool her. Why not? I worried she had no friends. I worried the teacher wasn't nurturing enough for either her or me. I feared there were too many kids in her class. I didn't think I'd ever make new friends. I hated the horrid drop-off traffic jam. I ached in every fiber of my being to just pull the plug and bunker down at home, learning what we can in a sheltered environment.
Or maybe I could still get her in Catholic school! Some tiny kindergarten taught by nuns. Her whole school would have maybe 80 kids, and we'd know all of them and like each and every one.
I knew each of these obsessive, fantasy-fueled panic attacks was nothing more than a failed attempt to stop my girl from growing up, and to stop me from reaching beyond my comfort zone and trying something new. But I couldn't grasp that at the time. All I felt was this insane desire to shove the toothpaste back in the tube.
I had worked myself into quite the frenzy by the time I went to pick her up a few hours later. Full of anxiety, I arrived on campus 20 minutes early (no New York City gridlock at pick-up time. Good to know), and felt butterflies at seeing my girl again. I wanted to make sure she knew I was there for her. Or maybe, I just wanted her to be there for me.
The minute the kindergarten door opened, my girl came out, that cap still on her head. She stopped in her tracks, looked at me and said, "Where's Daddy?"
I was not ready to be so unneeded.
"How was school, baby?" I asked, fighting the urge to pout and cry and scream "He's at work where he goes every day. But I'm here for you! I'm here! I've always been here!" "Did you have fun?"
"I played with M," she said.
So she did make a friend! A new friend! My heart lifted. I stopped whining about whether or not my girl would like her teacher or if I would get yelled at for lingering too long in class or if I would make new friends or figure out where to park my car in the morning madness. Or even if my girl needs me.
This isn't about me. It's about her, and what's best for her. My "instincts" told me this morning to pull her out and squirrel her away at home. My instincts are whack. I've always known this, and yet I listen to them daily. I'm afraid. She is not. This is all about her. What's good for her. And what she wants. Which, right now, is to go back to school. To eat her snack. To play on the playground with M. And wear her sparkly pink hat.
As I finish up this article, it is Day 2. I am still feeling such strong desires to pull her out of school and tuck her in my Moby Wrap so I can wear my girl all day long like I did when she was a newborn. But I'm putting one foot in front of the other and fighting on.
I'm talking myself down from the ledge and giving this new normal a chance. I am allowing myself some time to meet other moms, get to know the teacher, learn how I can help my girl enhance the lessons she's learning in school. I'm letting myself get adjusted. I can always change my mind later, but for now, I have to give this new change a chance.
As Dr. Seuss said, my girl has places to go, and it's my job to hand her the tools to lead her down the path. I'm not supposed to carry her or encourage her to sit on the side of the road. Even if I want to.
Today's drop-off was much more organized, and I thought I had it all figured out. Until my girl piped up from the backseat: "It's OK, Mom. Just drop me off and I can walk to school all by myself."
Oh hell no.