It was my first back-to-school morning as a parent. You'd think I'd be doing the happy dance all the way to the car and heading straight to Target to celebrate. Instead I was speed walking with my head down. My husband put his arm around me and pulled me close for a supportive hug. I shrugged him off. I needed to focus my energy on stifling the ugly cry that was fighting its way out. We ran into the parents of my daughter's preschool friend and when I opened my mouth to say hello, a sob escaped. I felt stupid. I mean, this was the day I had been dreaming of since the infant years when I was covered in spit up and baby food, cleaning yet another diaper blowout off the carpet. Why was I a basket case right now?
I never understood why parents got so emotional about their child starting school until about a week before watching my oldest walk through the door of her Kindergarten classroom. While exciting, it also made me sad and I had trouble figuring out why. As my daughter acted out and complained of being bored over the summer, I would nod to myself and think, "Yep. She's ready. I'm beyond ready!" In my mind, Kindergarten was the light at the end of the tunnel when things were supposed to start getting easier for me. I shopped early for school supplies with a spring in my step, the opposite of the veteran moms beside me in the store who were shaking their heads at the complexity of this year's supply list. I bought uniforms right away and devoured every bit of information in the new student packet.
I was eager. I was prepared. And then those feelings changed. The week before school started I would think to myself, this is my daughter's last Wednesday to just sit and play all morning, or her last Friday of "freedom". The school schedule would become our schedule. Instead of planning days how wanted to, we were going to plan them around the school calendar. I fought back tears visualizing the moment she would walk through the door of the classroom without me. For me that moment symbolized a rite of passage from co-dependent to independent. Those precious "baby" years of having mom and dad as the center or their universe would be over. I would now be the parent of a school-age child who would become less reliant on me, until of course she was off at college and had a bank account balance of $0. Then I'd be her best friend!
I knew I would have to start letting go, to let her make her own choices and her own mistakes while I wasn't around. I knew that I would not be able to be as present as I was when she was in daycare and in preschool. There would be no daily reports of each activity she did, whether she ate her lunch, or what toy she enjoyed playing with. I'd need to rely on her to tell me more than "fine" when I asked her questions about her day. There would be no casual banter with her teachers inside the classroom before the start of the school day or when I picked her up. I had to start letting go for her sake and for mine. She needed to carve her own path and be her own person, and I needed to give her the breathing room to do that. That was a hard fact to accept and the reason why this parent who couldn't wait for the life-changing freedom the school years were supposed to provide found herself so sentimental and emotional.
My daughter's Kindergarten teacher asked parents not to walk to their child into the classroom, but to say their good-byes at the door. To me, that was completely appropriate as I would be saying good-bye to my baby and hello to my big girl. The sunglasses I purposely wore on the first day of school shielded the tears that were falling as my husband guided her towards her classroom. I too needed to make a rite of passage and welcome the school years, and the independent thinker my daughter was to become.