My daughter started preschool this year. To say I’ve been dreading it would be the understatement of the century. All summer long, I would enjoy the days with my kids, and then at the end of the day I would get a sick feeling in my stomach and think oh no, we are one day closer to school starting…
The irony is, this isn’t my first time around the preschool block. My daughter is not my oldest child. I actually have one in 2nd grade and one in 1st grade this year. We survived the preschool years and the kindergarten years with both of them. I know there is life on the other side. But this time was different; I knew it would be different. Yes, my boys had cried on the first day. And the second. And the third. But after that, it was over. No more tears (from them or me), and no more sleepless nights wondering if we had made the right choice, sent them to the right school, prepared them in the right ways, etc.
But this time was different. When my daughter was just 18 months old, I had quit my job and made the decision to work full time from home running ICMB. In other words, she doesn’t remember a time that she wasn’t with me all day long. Last year, when she turned 3, I signed us up for a Bible study with corresponding childcare. Let’s just say, it was one of the worst moments in my parenting experience so far. It was so bad, in fact, that my best friend looked at me (as we walked down the hall to the Bible study class and could hear her screaming for me) and said “she’s not even my kid and I’m about to start crying!” Mind you, I was also 6 months pregnant at the time,too…
Fast forward. The day has come for the welcome/unpack your backpack event at the preschool. She plays outside all day and gets sweaty and dirty, so we clean up and I put on one of her brand new school outfits and her brand new shoes to go meet her teachers. We pack her brand new Sophia the First backpack with all of her brand new school supplies, and we head out the door. She is excited to be with just Mommy and Daddy (as one of four kids in the house, that is definitely a rare occasion), and I am surprised to see her run up to the school and start playing on the outdoor toys with the other kids. Wow, maybe this won’t be so bad after all! She unpacks her supplies, smiles at her teacher and says her name loudly and clearly, and when we go home she tells her brothers all about it with an excited voice. I continue to be cautiously optimistic.
And then, bedtime. Oh, bedtime. Just when you think the day is winding down and the chaos is ending for the next few hours, you are reminded that bedtime is when the stories come out. Bedtime is when your 2nd grader tells you “actually Mom, I didn’t have a good day today. So-and-so called me names at recess”, or your 1st grader tells you that “actually Mommy, the reason I was so hungry after school was because we didn’t have time to finish our lunch today”….and so on and so on. And then you get ZERO sleep worrying about what ELSE they didn’t tell you!
And so, bedtime. She has changed from her brand new school clothes to her well-worn flamingo pajamas, and she is feeling comfortable and vulnerable all snuggled up with the people who love her most in the whole wide world. And so, the floodgates open. And we’re talking open WIDE. Like, 100-year-flood-style. She is screaming and crying uncontrollably, and when she finally calms down enough to where I can understand a single word she’s saying, I hear the words “I don’t want to go to school Mommy!”. I don’t know what to do, or say, or feel. I lay down beside her and try to hide the fact that I, too, am crying. I wipe my tears and stroke her hair, trying my best to calm her down. Eventually the tears slow down, and the sobs are almost silent, and I almost think she’s sleeping. But then, she turns her head and looks me in the face and whispers, “Do I have to go?”
Heart. Ripped. Out.
“Yes,” I answer, and turn out the light so she can’t see the tears on my cheeks. Someday I will tell her that I cried there with her, that I was just as sad (sadder) than she was that night. But for now, I need to be strong for her and to be smiling and happy and excited about all of the fun she will have at school, making new friends and learning new things. And so that is what we do, her daddy and I. For the next few days after meet-the-teacher night, we talk up preschool until we are blue in the face. It’s going to be so much fun! You will have so many new friends! What do you think you will have at snack time? What toys are you excited to play with?
And then, all of the sudden, the time has come. It is the night before her first day. Or should I say, the afternoon before. Because around 4pm, it’s like an internal time bomb has gone off. One minute she is running around playing with her brothers and the neighbor kids, and the next minute she is in the house clinging to her blankie and asking me to snuggle and watch Frozen with her. And so we watch Frozen, and I snuggle her, and I tell her how much fun she is going to have at preschool. And then those darn floodgates open again.
In the morning, she gets dressed quickly and with a smile on her face. We eat breakfast, we take her brothers to school, and then we go for a donut to celebrate her special day. After donuts, we drive over to the school and I remind her that her teacher will be coming to the car to get her out in the drop-off line. I can see the tears forming in her eyes. I revert back to the overly-happy chatter about how much fun it will be. We get closer to the school, and the tears are running down her cheek. Only a couple, but still. The teacher opens the door with a giant smile on her face, welcoming my little girl to the world of preschool, the world without her mommy. To my surprise, she puts on her backpack and slowly walks away with the teacher. My heart is so happy to see her walk away without sobbing or screaming for me.
When I pick her up, I am sad to hear that the tears actually did come right after I left her. But, they reassure me, it’s the first day and that is normal. She stopped after a short time, and eventually did the activities with the other kids. Good, I think to myself, tomorrow will be better.
Day 2 is awful. She is literally sobbing and screaming for me when I drive away. There are very few things in this life harder than having to drive away from your child when they are screaming for you. But I do it. I do it because I know that she will be OK, and I know that turning around and picking her up isn’t going to help her in the long run. But oh, how I want to turn around.
Days 3 and 4 and 5 continue to get a little easier, but the night-befores are so, so hard. Every evening around 5pm she just loses it and wants to snuggle and watch Frozen, which before preschool was never even something she had interest in. And so we watch Frozen. Not because I want to, or because I think it’s what’s right for her, or because I even have a clue what’s right for any of us, but because I have been here before. I have watched The Country Bears until I thought I might stab myself in the eyeball, because my firstborn was dealing with moving to a new home, leaving his grandparents, and getting a new baby brother all in the same week. I have watched Toy Story 2 until I could recite every single word, because my secondborn was dealing with moving to a new bedroom and sleeping in a new big-boy bed. These movies will forever hold a place in my heart, because we snuggled them and we held them while they fell asleep, and we comforted them as they faced this new normal in their lives.
I’m happy to report that the night-befores have finally gotten better. In fact, they are now no different than the other nights of the week for us. But the drop-offs are still hard. Still tears. Still crying in her classroom asking for her mommy.
And then, yesterday, a turning point. Maybe not for her yet, but for me.
I drive up, and I can tell from her face that it hasn’t been a good day. She looks exhausted, and I can tell that she’s been crying. Her teacher opens my van door and helps her into her carseat. As she does, she whispers to me “she had a rough day today”. The lump in my throat makes it hard for me to answer. “Oh, ok,” I answer.
“But I reminded her that all of our friends here at preschool are missing their mommies, and sometimes they cry too. But then we stop crying so we can have fun, and we remember that mommy is always coming back. Don’t we, Nora?” Nora nods at her, and smiles at me.
“And don’t worry. I sat with her until she was ready to get up and play.”
I sat with her.
Thank goodness for giant sunglasses, because those four words hit me like a freight train. All of this time, I’ve been struggling with the night-befores, and honestly I’d try to block the tears at drop-off because if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to leave her. And when I drove away, I would push down that feeling of sadness and worry and just go do all the things on my to-do list because then the time would pass quickly and I would be there to pick her up.
But now I pictured it. Now I could envision her there, crying for me. And yet not alone. She had someone to sit with her. Someone who has done this lots of times before, but yet still has the patience and the compassion to keep sitting there with the ones who are sad, the ones who can’t quite understand that mommy will always come back.
And so today I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for sitting with her. Thank you for not being frustrated, or annoyed, or distracted by the student who is crying while you’re trying to keep the others on task. Thank you for comforting her, and for encouraging her to come play, and for walking her to my car with a smile on your face. Thank you for sitting with her.