Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Kindergarten, Day One: The Aftermath

It wasn’t a fight exactly, but the tension took me by surprise.

“I just don’t understand why this is so hard,” my husband said, “I thought you would be celebrating.  She had a good day.  She’s at a good place.”

“Well, uh, yes.  I am excited,” I stammered, “but it’s just that… um… it’s just that… it is hard.  For me.  It’s hard for me.”

He looked confused (wonder why).  “But it’s been hard on you to be at home with the girls too.  Kindergarten means that you will have time to write, to work… you’ll finally have some space.  Isn’t this what you’ve wanted for five years?”

Of course, but…

****

I hadn’t know how upset I was until I blubbered all over the school secretary.  Blubbered.  Really, it was lovely.  But it wasn’t during drop-off.  During that first morning drop-off, you would have thought we were professionals:

“Have fun today, honey.”  “Okay mom, bye.”  “Love you.”  “Me too.  Bye.”

She had stickers, markers and a name tag to decorate.  I had a little sister to entertain.  Who needs a scene anyway?

On the way out I remembered to tell the secretary that I would be picking her up today.  The bus had been a little intimidating that morning (as in, no-way-am-I-getting-on-that-thing), and so I wanted to help her first day go as smoothly as possible.  “Would you tell her so that she won’t worry about it?”  I asked.  “Sure,” the kindly secretary smiled, “I’ll let her know.”

The day went by quickly, and I kept the 3:05 pick-up in my sights.  Little sister wanted to go to a museum on the other side of town, but no matter, we would leave early and be at school in plenty of time.  I guessed that the trip would take thirty minutes (never having done it before), and so I left fifty minutes to get across town.  Fifty minutes was a little over-the-top, but I didn’t want to cut it close.  We had a plan.  Everything was under control.

Everything except the school buses.

There were school buses everywhere.  School buses like locusts.  School buses stopping traffic so that little children could walk across the street safely.  School buses turning a five minute stretch into fifteen minutes of gripping the steering wheel.  School buses ruining my life.

I tried to stay calm.  We had extra time after all.  I had been a responsible parent, hadn’t I?  We had plenty of time.  

Inch, inch, inch.

Now I was beginning to lose my bloody mind.  The school had been clear in mailed-home papers: Please do not ask us to hold your bused child if you are running late.  If you are not there by 3:05, we’re very sorry, but your child will be put on the bus.  I pictured my dear sweet kindergartner crying as they forced her on the bus.  “But my mom,” she would sob, “was… supposed to… pick me up!”  

Inch, inch, inch.

2:55.  2:59.  3:00.  I called the school.  The secretary answered.  I forced out the words, “Um, I’m stuck in traffic.  I thought I left plenty of time.  Could you tell my daughter that she’ll have to take the bus? (yep, that would be the same child that I asked you to give the opposite message to earlier today)  I’m afraid that she’ll be upset…”

With the word ‘upset’, I lost it.  The crying forced it’s way up through some deep place in me, and I was done.  I bawled.  “I’m… so… sorry…”  I couldn’t get any other words out.  “Bye…”  I hung up and kept crying.

Poor little sister.  She didn’t know what to do as her mother wailed and turned the car toward the bus stop.  “Mama, it okay.”  “Mama, don’t cry.”

Great.  I was scarring both children at the same time now.  I cried harder.

By the time the bus came, I had calmed down and bought two bribery cookies.  I prepared myself for my kindergartner’s tears, her well-founded accusations, and tried to steel myself so that I wouldn’t sob again.  The bus pulled up.

She bounced off, grinning from ear to ear.  “Mama!” she hugged me jubilantly,  “I took the bus!”

****

At dinner we got the story out of her.  The school secretary had hung up with me, gone into the gym, and walked her out to and then onto the bus; holding her hand until she found someone to sit with.  It had been the best part of our kindergartner’s day, and she couldn’t stop smiling.

I smiled too, but inside I was still a wreck.  It had turned out well, but I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.  “I’m so proud of you honey” I managed, and my husband put them to bed.

I stared at the wall.  Why was this so hard?  When he came back down, I tried to explain it to him (see stammering above), but I barely knew why I was feeling the way I was.  It was complicated.  Messy.  Hard to explain.

I’m starting to understand that this ‘letting go’ thing always is.

On one hand, you’re thrilled to see them grow, to have just a little bit more independence, and to become a little bit more of who they are apart from you.  After all, if our kids live to be eighty, they will be under our direct care for less than a quarter of their lives.  We are raising adults, and watching them become themselves is a beautiful thing.

However.

There is also the other hand.  You know, the hand that feels like its wrenching organs out of your chest?  It happens slowly, sometimes so slowly that you don’t even realize what’s going on until you start blubbering on the phone.  Suddenly you realize that you’re going to be putting her on that bus everyday.  That you won’t see her again until the bus returns.  That she has a world you will only visit, and though that world is a good good place, it’s not yours.

It’s hers.  And this is harder than I thought it would be.

All of this is taking me by surprise, because really, I am an exceptionally disgruntled stay-at-home mom.  Needy babies drove me crazy, and demanding preschoolers are only marginally better.  No, I don’t want to play kitten doctor with you again.  No, I don’t want to keep you company while you poop.  Please, please watch another video so that I can read a book (or write a blog post… right now little sister is watching Blues Clues).

My husband is right.  I like my space.  But I love my girls, so much that it really honestly feels like they’re somehow physically attached to me.  So much that these steps of letting go, while lovely and necessary, are a little like surgery.

Kindergarten was/is a big procedure.  So please be kind to me.  I’m still recovering.

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Why Preschool is my Friend

“Mama, can we paint?”

The correct answer to this question is no.  I said yes.

About an hour later, I was recovering.  Diego was conducting my children’s daily Spanish lessons.  And then, from the very depths of my maternal soul, came a thought so true and so obvious that I spoke it into an empty room.

“This is why I send my children to preschool.”

*****

Yes, I am a bad mother.  I am also a good one.  And I am better with preschool at my side.

And so, with all respect for the homeschooling parents (and hoping that the feeling is mutual), I present a short list of reasons why I am grateful to drop my children off at a small brick building for a few hours each day.  Only one is specific to our very own preschool, and so I will get it out of the way first.

1.  Mr. Rogers once worked with children there, and his child development mentor was the original director.  Really.  Mr. Fred Rogers.  He is my hero.

2.  The teachers are more well-rested than myself and my husband.  This makes them much nicer to our children.

3.  Educational toys galore that I don’t have to buy.  Or store.  Or trip over and threaten to hide in a bin for a month if they don’t Put Them Away Right Now.

4.  Other parents in the same young child boat to commiserate with.  Groaning about the effects of daylight savings time (non-sleepy kids at night who can’t get up in the morning) or a pink-eye epidemic or kindergarten lotteries with people who understand them for the tragedies that they are.

5.  A flat area for tricycles, bookshelves full of colorful and appropriate books,and potties that are just their size.  It’s like someone designed the room just for, well, preschoolers.

6.  Relationships with child development professionals who know my particular kids, and who don’t mind lots of questions.

7.  Supervised small group interactions that I don’t have to supervise.  Good for them, good for me.

8.  Driving away in the car without first strapping someone into the car seat.  Going to the bathroom by my stinkin self.  Drinking the entire cup of coffee without having to heat it again in the microwave.  Freedom!

9.  Paint, glue and even GLITTER that I don’t have to find, get out, become stressed out by, or clean up.

10.  Two lovely little girls who run down the sidewalk towards preschool and then greet their teachers with hugs.  Most days.  And even when I deliver them kicking and screaming, the teachers don’t seem to mind.


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“Santa is Died,”

and other things that you don’t want your three-year-old to announce during preschool story time.

****

The question took me by surprise.

Up to this point, our family had employed a very successful ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy about the man with the reindeer.  It went like this–Mama and Daddy get you presents because we love you.  Your grandparents get you more (and better) presents because they love you and have disposable income.  Aren’t those silly reindeer cute?  And that man with the big white beard, isn’t he funny?

“Mama, is Santa real?”

The question came from the three-year-old, from the backseat of the car, on the drive to Thanksgiving.  The timing surprised me, but don’t worry– I was prepared.

“Well, honey, St. Nicholas was real.  He lived a long time ago and gave presents to children.  He loved children so much, and now we remember him when we see Santa.”

“Is St. Nicholas still alive?”

“Well… (I sensed that we were entering deeper waters)… no, not really.  He lived a long time ago.”

A long pause while both of my daughters considered this information.  Then the youngest spoke.

“Mama, Santa is died?!?!?”

****

So.  At this point I mumbled something about no-honey-Santa-is-still-real-in-stories-and-won’t-you-be-excited-to-see-the-doggies-at-Thanksgiving, and hoped that they would forget.  It worked.

Until the drive home.  My husband was driving the other car, and I was waiting for them to fall asleep.  Instead, our youngest started sobbing dramatically, clearly intending to communicate her distress.  “What’s wrong, honey?”   She breathed loudly.  “I sad,” she declared, “because,” sob, sob, sniffle, “Santa is died.”

Long pause.  Here we go again.

“You mean, Santa is dead,” her older sister corrected.

I interrupted.  “No, no… sweetie… umm… Santa isn’t dead.  St. Nicolas is dead because he lived a long time ago, but now he lives in God’s house, and we remember him and… uh… Santa… well… you see Santas all over the place this time of year.  And we tell Santa stories too, and…”

She was not appeased (yes, if you are wondering, this is the “Mama, You No Eat Animals!” daughter).  Sob, sob, sob… her volume was increasing now… “I sad because Santa is died!”

“Santa is dead.” The grammar police again.

I sighed, reached back, and held her hand.

****

If you would like to judge me for this little episode, you won’t be alone.  For days I berated myself about spoiling the magic of childhood; for making something that could have been so simple, so complicated; and for not having the right words when the moment came.

But then it got worse.  Remorse turned to panic as I remembered.  Preschool.  We had four weeks of preschool until Christmas.  I could see it all unfold before my eyes.  A crowd of three-year-olds listens intently as an unsuspecting teacher turns a page in a storybook.  “Look children, who is this man in the red suit?”  A chorus of sweet voices, “Santa!  That’s Santa!”

And then my daughter would make her announcement.

****

Briefly, I considered keeping her home for the month of December, but then I decided to start by talking with her teacher.

It was the end of the day, and parents were bundling their children.  I found the teacher.  “Um, Can I talk with you about something?”  She could tell that I had something serious to say.  She nodded, we stepped into the hallway, and I blurted out my story.    When I was finally finished, I looked down at the ground and waited.  Would we be kicked out of preschool?  Maybe I should have just kept her at home, and kept my mouth shut.  Now it was too late.  I looked up.

She didn’t looked shocked.  Quite the contrary… her expression was more like, “so, this was your serious news?”  She started to walk back to the other children, leaving me with a simple, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  We did something similar in my family, and my niece used to say the same thing.  Don’t worry about it at all.”  Then she was gone, back to the pressing needs of unmittened hands.

And that was it.

****

That was it… so far… but we still have four weeks to go.  Four weeks to go, and that’s just this year.

But I’ve decided to stop nursing my remorse and panic.  Here’s why.  In our brief encounter, here’s what I learned from my daughter’s preschool teacher:  It’s okay.  Kids say things.  Parents say things.  Families do things differently.  Life goes on.

And if a declaration like “Santa is died” isn’t as shocking as I imagined, maybe we can just keep figuring this all out.