It's My Kids' First Day Of School, And I'm The One Learning

The air is crisp, the lunches are packed, and I may or may not be cheering: my kids are finally returning to the classroom. (Our school has quite possibly the latest back-to-school date in America). As my 2-year-old and 4-year-old—yes, I’m talking about preschool—prepare for their momentous first week, I’ve come down with a sympathy case of the back-to-school jitters.

That telltale uneasy feeling—like I ingested a couple butterflies for breakfast—whisks me back a few decades. The anticipation is uncannily similar, but like a diner peeking into a restaurant kitchen, the first day of school looks quite a bit different now from the parents’ point of view.

Wake-up call. We all have our strengths—I’ve always excelled at sleeping. My school-aged self slept copious amounts and could never wake up without an alarm. The first day this year, though, starts like most in my house these days: the tiny but demanding voice of my 2-year-old son shatters the stillness of daybreak, narrating his manic search for a prized stack of Legos while ransacking our house like a madman. Next, the baby’s cries mix in. Then the pitter-patter of 4-year-old feet prancing in search of stuffed ponies and ballet slippers blends with the clackety, erratic tack-tack-tack of long-neglected canine toenails hitting the wooden kitchen floor, guiding our petite but soulful dog’s hopeful nose. Ah, the cacophonous symphony of the suburban wake-up-call. No alarm needed. Ever. My eyes sharpen and make sense of the blurry numbers on the clock and groan—we have a mere three hours to get ready for school. Not surprisingly, less than half of moms under age 45 get enough sleep. My bedtime tonight: 9 p.m.

First day picture and interview. I delight in posing my children on the first day of school and inquiring about what they want to be when they grow up—though their answers don’t get displayed on Pinterest-worthy plaques in my house (it’s possible my own artistic abilities peaked in preschool). My son wants to be Elmo; my daughter a princess. I recently asked my mom how my preschool-aged self answered that question, and I could tell she hasn’t quite recovered. Turns out my response — “I want to stay home and do nothing, just like my mommy” — caused her to accelerate her job search and rejoin the labor force after years of hard work at home. My little, naïve self may have been onto something — part of me would love to crack the windows, plop down under a blanket, and binge on candy corn and the last season of “The Affair” — but my present-tense self thrives on working 60 percent and spending the remaining two days a week tending to the needs and desires of three pocket-sized people. Far from “doing nothing,” I agree with most American mothers that part-time work is ideal—and I’ve been lucky to make that a reality. Thankfully, I know my little ones’ aspirations will take some turns too.

Meeting the teachers. There’s a thing called selective mutism, that causes a person normally capable of speech not to talk in certain situations or to certain people. I never took it quite this far, but I was a shy girl who did not enjoy talking to teachers. They were GROWN-UPS! They made RULES! They enforced rules. Even in high school and college, I was never the type to become chummy with teachers. Walking into school as a parent sure has altered that. Preschool teachers are quite possibly the most tolerant, gentlest, kindest breed of human on the planet. I see them more often than I see most of my friends—and they certainly know my kids better than anyone else does. My children’s teachers have become like an extension of our family—and unlike in my earlier years, I can’t get the words (and questions) out fast enough. If I could go back and change one thing, I’d greatly increase my interaction with my teachers—and I hope to help my kids see their teachers as mentors and champions and what they really are: patient goddesses. Oops, I mean people.

After-school activities. I have fond memories of sprinting into my house after school, ditching my cumbersome backpack, and dashing back out the door in search of neighborhood friends and their ever-fascinating toys. I certainly participated in my share of activities, but most of my time in the early years was gloriously unstructured. As the sun began to set on this summer, oozing brilliant yellows and oranges to alert us that fall was near, a fellow mom friend and I agreed it’d be great to get our kids together for a playdate. Between work schedules and kid activities, we settled on a date six weeks in the future. Six. Weeks. My parents’ vocabulary didn’t include the word over-scheduled. I don’t want my kids to miss out, but I’m benching them this season. I’ve noticed when they don’t have enough downtime (which my preschoolers desperately need)—they get, well, down.

On the ride to school this morning, my daughter asked if she’s going to school again tomorrow. You better believe it, child—I have lots more to master.