August in the Midwest means it’s back to school time. If you listen closely, among the sound of diesel engines and air brakes, you’ll hear umbilical cords snapping all around. A new school year means another group of five-year-olds heading off for their first day of Kindergarten. This year my girl is among them. She’s my second and sending the second isn’t quite as bad as sending the first. As is usually the case for us, working through the situation with our first made us better prepared for this go round, but not long ago, it was my boy, my first, and sending him that first day of school was a lot tougher than I thought it’d be.
After years of rolling my eyes at weepy, over-dependent moms, I learned for myself what an emotional and exhausting milestone the first day of school actually is– for the parents and the kids.
For a lot of families the anxiety comes from the looming separation, but that’s not the case for us. As a working parent, I don’t spend every day with my kids. I haven’t since they were babies, whether they’re at school or the sitter makes no difference to me. Also, between the alternating full day schedule, holidays, and teacher in services, the kids are hardly ever at school anyway. There’s still going to be plenty of quality together time.
There definitely is a milestone effect in play. Starting kindergarten is the end of an era in childhood. As a parent, it’s a wake up call as to how fast time flies and a semi-sad realization that a big part of your little one’s childhood is already over. Kind of like realizing my son is now so big I can’t really pick him up or hold him anymore, not like I used to. The moments for cuddling my tiny baby have passed and I can’t get ever get those back.
But that’s life, claimed by the relentless march of time, and thankfully for me, each stage with my kids seems to be better than the last.
I’ve never missed the baby stage.
Except for one thing.
The baby gate. Those glorious days when I could effectively cage the kids into their playroom. When enforcing limits and protecting my tiny babes from any potential harm was as easy as erecting a plastic barrier in a door frame. I miss those days. Quite a bit sometimes.
I especially missed them when I thought about sending my first-born off to school.
That’s when I realized the raw source of my (unexpected) angst. For the first time my baby was going into an environment I’d not meticulously constructed in some manner, with people I had not researched, interviewed, background checked, and pre-approved prior to their contact with him. People who wouldn’t know him and could not possibly care about him as much as I do. It felt like I was handing him over to strangers.
Our kids go to a sitter and preschool. They spend plenty of time with their grandparents and they’re in a slew of different activities, but, even with all of that, we keep a tight leash in terms of who they’re around and what they’re exposed to. Most parents do because controlling everything around our babies is how we first learn to protect them and it’s hard to move away from that behavior. Think rubber table corners, outlet overs, cabinet locks and the baby gates. It’s what we know and if the kid has made it to kindergarten, it’s worked so far, right?
The low point for me came at a kindergarten meet-n-greet as I tried to ask questions about background checks and microchip tracking devices without sounding like a deranged, overprotective, lunatic.
The question I asked out loud was: “How will he get to where he needs to be when he needs to be there, for example, from the bus into class and back out again?”
My (subtly disguised) real question was: “Who exactly will be taking care of my baby all day?”
I realize now my son’s kindergarten teacher is very experienced at managing the panic-stricken mom. She knew I wasn’t quite ready to hear the answer to my question. Instead, I was referred to (and immediately distracted by) what she called ‘the yellow ID card’.
“No need to worry Mom, just fill out the card and he’ll be fine,” she said.
“The card” is a 4X4 piece of yellow paper that I’m to fill out and tie around his neck with string. This way if he gets lost, someone (no idea who?) will steer him onto his bus or to his classroom or at worst, I’m guessing, drop him into the nearest mailbox so he can be returned to the address on the card.
I held it together on the outside, but as I said, this was the low point for me. I had a nightmarish flash of putting my baby on a bus full of heathens driven by what I was sure would be an incompetent and slightly intoxicated stranger, who may or may not be a pedophile, with nothing more than a piece of paper tied around his neck and banana in his little school-mandated tote bag.
The next day, in between researching home schooling, I filled out the yellow ID card and I realized he already knew everything I was writing down. Slowly, I remembered he is an intelligent boy who can speak English and understands that he needs to get from his bus to his class and eventually back out again. I remembered he was a boy, not a baby, and he knows his teachers name, his bus number, his address, his phone number, his student id and pin, and the garage code to our house. And half the time he reminds me about what we need to do or where we need to go.
Then I answered my own question. Who will be taking care of my baby all day?
He’ll take care of himself. That is, after all, what we’ve been working toward these last five years. Kindergarten is the first real test of the job we’ve done.
Independence is second only to kindness in our goals for raising our kids and I’m pretty serious about wanting them to move out promptly after graduation. I want them on their own, functioning, happy, making good choices, living their lives, but kindergarten was an awakening about how bittersweet achieving that goal is going to be.
Of course, bittersweet achievement if far better than 30-year-old living in my basement, so I’ll deal with it.
It’s horrifying to think of all the things I can’t control that might affect my kids. It’s not like it used it be when I could set up the baby gate and make sure nothing could hurt them. Starting kindergarten made me more aware of the shift that takes place in parenting as our kids grow up. We can’t control what’s around them all the time, especially if we’re working. All we can do is try to teach them the skills they need to take care of themselves, including how to make good decisions on their own. And that is infinitely more difficult than baby-proofing a house.
The first day of school, my son said good-bye and got on the bus without looking back. He listened to the driver, found his seat and situated himself perfectly. I could tell he was nervous, but he didn’t look to us for help or encouragement, he worked it up himself and it was an amazing thing to watch. It was his first real step away from us, beautiful and bittersweet.
And I’m happy to report my over-dramatized fears about the bus nightmare and the ‘strangers’ were beyond ridiculous. He is in a controlled, safe and supportive environment in a fantastic school. Everyone; the bus driver, the teacher, the principal, the secretaries, is a professional of the highest order, and we’ve seen already what makes the school great is the fact these people inherently care about our kids.
Any real concerns I had about Kindergarten faded when I realized, at least for this first step, he is ready. And any lingering worries disappeared on the second day when the bus pulled up and he said, “Mom, you stay here. I can walk over to the bus by myself.”
This time it’s hard because girl-kid is my baby and she’s nowhere near a baby anymore, but I’m a bit more comfortable letting go. She’s going to have big brother there, of course, and she’s beyond ready. The third word she ever spoke (after dada and mama) was “myself” as she fought me for the spoon and her baby food when she was around six months old. I don’t **think** she’s going to have any trouble. And after those first few teary moments watching the bus pull away, ole’ mom should be just fine, too.