In Canada, most schools start on the first week of September. So, naturally, back to school stuff starts circulating in about mid-July, about three weeks after school lets out for the summer. Never too early, right? This year, back to school had more meaning for me than in years past: this year, for the first time, one of my kids was heading off to kindergarten. Ben was excited (and I was too) when we started seeing the first signs of back to school sales floating around.
But at the same time as the back to school signs started going up in stores, the back to school Facebook posts started circulating as well. This year, “A Mother’s 1st Day of School Prayer” seemed to be the thing on all my friends’ Facebook feeds. You may have seen it:
(Photo: Lessons From The Middle)
And below it would be comments – often dozens – of my fellow kindergarten moms: “OMG, I know! I’m already in tears thinking about the first day.” Or moms of kids who were already in school: “I still cry on the first day of school. Every time!”
Aside from the furious protestation from the poetry geek in me – rhythm and meter, people, they’re important! – I found it hard to read this post, and the comments it generated, because I didn’t feel the way all of these moms said they were feeling. I was excited for Ben’s first day – for him, and for me. I was looking forward to it – no hesitations, no tears, no fears.
Oh, sure, I felt the usual little worries. What if he had trouble finding his class, or if he didn’t get along with his teacher, or if he got upset or nervous while he was there. And sure, a part of my brain was looking on in awe: “He’s in school already? He’s getting so big!” But I wasn’t weepy, or fearful, or dreading how fast the day was approaching.
Since I hadn’t taken the step yet of putting my son on that bus and waving goodbye as he headed off to school, I didn’t feel like I could say that I wasn’t going to cry. For all I knew, I’d be in buckets of tears as the bus pulled away. Saying I wouldn’t cry felt like being pregnant and declaring that all colicky babies can be soothed if their parents learn some simple techniques: it’s an invitation for disaster.
Well, on September 2, I put my son on that big yellow bus. And now I can say it: I didn’t cry on my son’s first day of kindergarten.
Parenting is a funny journey; if you’re doing it right, you know that the person you’re parenting will eventually leave you. Everything about parenting is about moving from closeness to separation. With a young child, whether you carried them yourself or adopted them, the necessity of constant care requires your presence. You may work, or travel, or share parenting with another person, but in the hours that a very young child is in your care, the pair of you are close to inseparable. A baby – or toddler, or even a preschooler – needs you to be close, needs it in the way that they need food and water and shelter.
But then they start walking away. It’s both forever and no time at all before they’re looking at you and saying, “I do this myself.” Or before, like my son, they climb up the big steps for their first real ride on a school bus and don’t even look back. As Ben, and his sister Alicia, continue to grow, they will walk away from me more and more: to school, to day camps, to visit friends. To go to high school and college and, eventually, to create their own homes and families. For me, the path of parenting leads my children away from me. The path will forever be clear – they can always come back – but I’m ready to see them go around the bend, beyond my view, and then return later to tell me stories of their adventures.
So for me, there was nothing to cry about on Ben’s first day of kindergarten – my first day as the mother of a school aged child. Instead, there was excitement, and freedom: to spend more time with his sister, to do the writing that I love, to explore who I will be when I no longer have to be Mom all hours of the day.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong if you do cry on your child’s first day of school. It’s a big transition, and it’s as scary for us as for our kids (if in different ways.) But those of us who don’t cry need to speak up; we need to let everyone know there’s nothing wrong with the way we feel. In retrospect, I wish I had commented on the Mother’s Prayer posts. Somewhere out there, one of my Facebook friends was probably thinking, “Gosh, I didn’t feel that way on my child’s first day of school. Am I just callous, or selfish, or unfeeling?” – just the way that I did. But hopefully, they – and many more parents – will read this and know that their experience is not unique. There is no shame in shedding tears on the first day of school…but there’s also no shame in smiling.