Every afternoon, right around 5:47, I cry just a little bit. Mostly on the inside, but still...Nobody knows. Nobody sees. Except my dog, since that's when I walk him past the elementary school up the street and see all the parents rushing to pick up their kids from after-school care.
Observing all this activity shoots me back to the early days of divorce, when I had to grab my son and daughter from school by 6 p.m. Sure it was only every Tuesday (for dinner) and every other Thursday and Friday (their weekends with me). Still, making the mad dash to get them was no easy task. It meant leaving the office at least an hour early and then trying to deal with work while navigating Los Angeles traffic.
I regularly broke roughly half a dozen traffic laws to make it in time. Still, I had more than enough solo time in the car to feel like a loser for bringing about the divorce circumstances that had me rushing in the first place. After all, this was the era when I bought every book about children and divorce to try to make things right. And all those books convinced me I'd doomed my kids to lives as puppy-kicking drug dealers who sell crack to kindergarteners. Or, even worse, as a security officer at a a Donald Trump rally.
Once I had retrieved my son and daughter, the next hour or so was consumed with hearing stories about who had a great playground tetherball game and who traded their bologna sandwich for baseball cards and who got another A on a spelling test. I suppose that's why these late-afternoon pickups seemed more like a chore than an opportunity. It was all about rushing and then...talking minutiae over burgers and fries. More than once, I wondered what harm could come from just sending them home with friends, where I'd pick them up later without having to hurry?
After a few weeks, though, the strangest thing would happen on those afternoons when I didn't have to pick them up. I'd get home from work, pour myself a bathtub's worth of wine and sit in a silence that was only broken when it was time for SportsCenter. Something was missing: Conversation. Suddenly, I wanted to know who could name all 50 state capitals and who couldn't figure out why girls kept throwing his prized baseball cap into their bathroom.
The quiet was fine for a brief time, but very quickly, it became increasingly uncomfortable. It seems I'd been looking at my Tuesday and every other Thursday and Friday trips all wrong. They weren't an inconvenient parental obligation, like orthodontist trips or watching movies starring animated talking animals. Rather, they were just as much for my benefit as they were for my kids. I missed hearing being that first person they see after school, when they were most eager to surrender details of their day.
That's one of the sneaky things I'd never anticipated about life after divorce. You get so used to coming home and swapping stories about the day with your family that you don't realize how important that seemingly mundane activity is. For you and your kids. There's something special about being that first one they get to purge to. It's so natural, so enthusiastic.... The moments for that sort of bonding drop dramatically as they hit middle school and carve out their own lives, making those manic elementary school drives even more important.
And now, my kids are older - one in college, one trying to survive high school. They've long since hit the age when sharing personal details with their parents is as socially unacceptable as owning a flip phone. They're maturing into smart, social people, which poses a new and scarier challenge - speaking to them as adults. I'm left hoping that the conversations we'd have after those school pickups encourage them to keep talking as we all get older.
Which, I suppose, is why I choose to walk my dog when afterschool pickup mania is at its peak. It's nostalgia I never figured I'd yearn for. I look for the single parents in the crowd - the mom listening to her daughter's dinner request while arguing on her cell phone with the ex who was supposed to pick the girl up; the dad hearing his Dodger jersey-clad son brag about how far he'd hit a softball that day; and the guy in the suit scolding his two kids for wanting to pet my dog.
Some parents look annoyed that they hustled there only to drag home a crabby kid upset about the friend who now won't speak to him/her. Others seem clearly amused hearing a detailed description of the toilet prank that got another kid sent to the principal's office. But the thing is, they showed up. Which is the number one job of any divorced parent. Just get there. It's hard to realize that when the late-afternoon rush to an elementary school feels more like work than good parenting. But trust me...it's a reward that pays off eventually.
So are my daily watery eyes the result of a wistfulness that comes from seeing other kids and parents sharing the same innocent, innocuous, end of day conversations I once had with my kids? Or are they tears of happiness because I learned to survive a painful time simply by being present with my son and daughter, which has helped them grow into amazing young adults? I'd have to say the answer is....yes.