This essay first appeared in Chicago Parent magazine in August 2004. My daughter was 3 years old, starting preschool. Now she is in her last days of 2nd grade, a world away, and yet not really. She is still teaching me the dignity and grace of differentiation and I'm still the Hovering Mothercraft I've always been. But I'm learning. I'm better. Reading this piece, from what feels like an eternity ago, I'm reminded of just how far we've both come. (Except for me.)
August, 2004, Chicago Parent
Here's the original essay: A Mom's View of the First Day of School
By Pamela Cytrynbaum
I am up all night before my 3-year-old starts her new preschool, anxious and despairing in this odd, vague way.
My husband, daughter, bear-dog and I have just moved from our home in Oregon for a one-year sabbatical in my beloved hometown of Evanston. My daughter will attend preschool in the synagogue where I grew up, and where my mother currently works. It is as close as I will get to the shtetl life I've always wanted.
Leah and I are counting the minutes until school starts. "I'm crazy for school," she tells me. I need the time to work. It's a win-win.
Why couldn't I sleep?
The night before I made her little lunch-Warning: seriously Oregon hippie lunch alert (a smoked salmon and tofu-cream cheese sandwich triangle, cold scrambled eggs, cheese, apples, sippy cup of mango smoothie, a box rice milk). I packed her Dr. Seuss backpack with all the goodies the school required: disposable camera, change of clothes, two pictures of the kid, one family picture, box of tissues (for mom?).
Her first day. Leah is amazing, no surprise. I am a mess, no surprise.
She wakes up at 6 a.m. We read her favorite book, When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry, three times. She dawdles. Then, wants to hurry and see her new teacher at school. We get dressed (green cargo shorts and purple/pink flowered T-shirt) and she gathers a small army of comfort objects: her set of small bears Phil and Peaches, two plastic avocados, six straws, plus her Dr. Seuss bag and the yellow plastic alligator.
"We're ready to roll!" Leah sing-songs, galloping to the front door of our tiny apartment.
I am bereft.
By the time we actually leave the "apart-ah-ment," she has only Phil. Her backpack is strapped on and her pink socks and big-girl sandals and my achy heart collapse under the weight of the unspeakably cruel central job of motherhood: letting go. I flash back to our first ultrasound and the midwife's words ... "start letting go now."
Leah stands there in the elevator, leaning into the wall from the weight of her backpack, and the power of her moment, feeling so big and strong. In the car, she says: "Roxy is my old teacher. Bonnie is my new teacher."
In the car.
Me: muffled sobs.
Leah: unmuffled imaginary conversation between old teacher and new teacher.
At first she wants me to hold her a bit. My body cleaves to hers and I hold her too tight. Not for long. Never long enough. Bonnie comes out and Leah leaps off me like a flying squirrel off a tree branch. Kids arrive. Leah follows Bonnie around, helping set up the chairs. We head to the playground. I do not exist. I see it happen, like in time-lapse photography it comes over her; I watch my baby get her total school groove on and transform into a big kid. I am lost. And giddy. This is supposed to happen. This is good. All the clichés of parenting are true. It's too fast and too slow. It's more love than your heart knows what to do with. It's harder and more wonderful and humbling and all of it, all of it, all of it. I can't think straight for the rush of it all.
There are easels for painting and chalk for the sidewalk, a pool full of balls. Leah flies away.
I hear sobs. YES! I knew it! Step Away From The Child. Only I Can Fix This. I AM THE MOTHER.
I whip around to the anguished sound. It's somebody else's kid. Leah is patting her on the back. "It's OK. Don't be sad. School is good," Leah coos.
Another boy collapses into his mother's tie-dyed T-shirt. My heart pushes at my ribs like it's trying to escape.
Leah races onto the bike-merry-go-round, the slide; I watch for a while and then start, suddenly, to feel like I might cry a really lot, so I yell to her I'm going to get coffee and I'll be back. My mother's office is conveniently located next to the playground, so I run in just in time for a mega-mama-crying jag. My mother holds me. This, too, is too much. Motherhood is too much.
Then we both peek outside and see Leah, who has gathered a huge handful of grass, sticks, flowers, acorns and dirt and is sitting inside the toddler-sized plastic house "selling" her wares to a huge, snaking line of kids-apparently her customers.
"It's time to go," my mother tells me.
I sniffle. "She'll be devastated if I don't say an official goodbye, Mom."
I go outside to say my official goodbye, barely able to keep it together. Leah digs into a pile and hands me a tiny bouquet of white flowers. "Mommy, go home now," she says. How did a child like this come out of somebody like me?
My daze and whimpers are interrupted. Big Madge, the onsite social worker, barks: "I wanna see you in the library by the Danish. Now."
I wave to Leah, who, mercifully, waves back.
I slink to the room where the mothers have gathered for coffee, Danish, each other and the salty wisdom of Big Madge. I burst into tears. She says: "Your daughter is doing great. You're not. You should have left half an hour ago."
I know. I know. I start to panic. I say I want to go check one more time. Big Madge says sit down. All the moms agree. It's an intervention. I don't even know anybody's name.
All the moms talk about various weanings and separations. No one touches the Danish. Big Madge coaxes me to sit back down every so often. After an hour or so, I decide it's probably time to leave.
But first I run back to say goodbye to my mom.
So here I am. I'm not crying at all now. I think we're all going to be OK.
Pam Cytrynbaum is Leah's mom, a writer, a former Evanstonian and a teacher of journalism at both the college and high school levels.
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