I had never been good at first days of anything. I was the kind of kid who waded around a circle of kids, a lot like you do before immersing yourself in a cold pool. But my son, at five years old, had no hesitation. I want to say that on his first day of kindergarten, I was worried about who he was going to be friends with. But I wasn’t.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Of course, I wanted him to make friends. I wanted him to be the teacher’s pet. The star of the class. The child with all of the playdates. But on that first day of school, approaching a group of moms who seemed to know each other for decades, I almost had a full-blown anxiety attack.
Soon, all sorts of left-out feelings from my school days returned. I was the unknown variable at the playground. No one looked familiar. Who would I sit with? Were my clothes okay? When the teacher came out to call the children into class, I turned to my son.
“Nervous honey?” I said.
I pulled him in for a hug.
He pushed me away.
“It’s going to be great, honey.” I kissed him and he escaped through my maternal octopus arms to line up with the other kids.
After he walked into the school, I immediately called my best friend, Liz, to talk me off the ledge.
“Make it stop,” I commanded her. She quickly reminded me that it wasn’t actually my first day of school, but it was my son’s. Plus, she said, I didn’t need to be friends with anyone and more, I could easily pull a Paris Hilton and pretend to talk on my phone to take the pressure off. “Because if nothing else,” she said, “pretend friends always work.” She also reminded me that I already had friends. Um. Like a lot of them. “Maybe this is more about Jake than you.”
Psychologists have long been versed in the details of separation anxiety and back-to school fears, but parental separation anxiety is a little more new. Over anxious parents are something of a hybrid between stage moms and helicopter parents. Instead of your average worries, we often go over the edge about our kids making friends with the right kids, or—as it happened in my case—with the right moms. (Some of us have gotten so bad, according to reports, that even colleges are offering programs to help apprehensive parents.)
Psychologist Gail Schultz offered this insight:
“The feeling of separation anxiety is more likely to come up now if you had it when you were a child. You may be partially reliving your own childhood memories and now placing them onto your child.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that my are-you-nervous-because-it’s going-to-be-okay talk was more for me than it was for him. In fact, asking him if he was “nervous” was a setup of sorts, wasn’t it? If a child isn’t showing signs of nerves, the trick is to keep your mouth shut. That morning, there were children crying at the front door and clinging to their parents. But Jake was fine. Jake was more than fine. He was eager. And, hello, this was a good thing! He had been excited to go to school. He wasn’t afraid to take on a new adventure. What else could a parent ask for?
My fears, I realized, had nothing to do with Jake. Yes, of course, my first-day-of school worry was normal—but my worry about who I’d be friends with had nothing to do with Jake. They were my old conflicts. Not his.
When I got back to the school for pick up, he ran out of the school door with a giant smile. “I met a friend! He likes Star Wars too, Mom. You have to find his mom and set up a playdate.” I looked around at the different groups of parents until one woman approached me through the crowd.
“Are you Jake’s mom? Because I was told, no, commanded, to find Jake’s mom,” she said, laughing.
I held out my hand to shake hers. “Yes, that’s me.”