Thursday, October 11, 2012

The First Day


My chest is tight as I dart around the apartment picking up clothes and organizing piles of junk.  Jumping from one action to the next  I can't seem to focus.  "Here eat this,"  I shove a strawberry in my daughter's face as she watches Sesame Street. She shakes her head, lost in Elmo's World.  I frantically head back to the kitchen looking for something else.  I slice an apple, quickly peel the skin and leave it in front of her.  She slowly takes a bite and moves on to coloring.  I continue running around the apartment, check her bag, unload the dishwasher and make my breakfast powered by nervous energy.  My husband comes in from the bathroom and asks me a question.  I bark back an answer not quite sure of what he said.  He should know better.  When I'm in this state I can't comprehend any new information and my body is both unable to move and unable to stop.

As the clock passes 8:30 a.m. my throat goes dry.   I rush around my daughter's bedroom looking for her shoes and jacket, fumbling with the Sharpie marker to label each.  My husband  scoops her up onto the changing pad for one last diaper change.  He has her repeat her name and the name of her teacher.  We help put her backpack on and pose for a picture.  I hug her tight and look at the camera, my smile a jerky, nervous twitch.

"I'm ready," she says and walks out the door leaving me standing in the middle of the room.  I look around knowing there is nothing else I can do.  Nothing to prepare, clean, or organize to fill the hollow space in my heart currently occupied by fear.  So I follow her bouncing ponytail down the hall, into the elevator and we start our journey to her first day of preschool.

I thought I would be overly excited for this day.  That I'd have to calm my husband who I envisioned having a protective bear stance as his little cub went off with the pack. But along the short walk to school my legs feel like lead and my breathing is so quick I can barely keep up with his chatter about how much fun today will be. I gather enough air to ask my daughter what the number is on the school, hoping she remembers from our drive past it the other day.  "Number twenty!"  she exclaims and points to the door as the other parents and children pile in.  I help her up the steps, watching her take each one with such effort, wondering if I dressed her right, if she will be cold, if she will be hungry in a half hour because she didn't eat a good breakfast, and if she will be okay.

I let her walk in first.  She stops a little past the door, taking in all the toys and new faces.   Other parents are darting around.   Confusion colors her face and she freezes in a sea of adult legs. I crouch down to take her backpack and jacket off.  Her teacher says hello, her smile welcoming.  My hands are shaking as I find an empty hook for her backpack.

My daughter spots some toys on the table and pulls out the chair to sit and join the other kids.  I try to catch her attention and reiterate how much I love her and that Daddy and I will be back soon.  I get no response and her teacher gives me a nod that indicates there is nothing left for me to do but leave.  My daughter doesn't acknowledge my words but makes eye contact long enough for me to wave and say, "See you later."  I join my husband who has already given all the little boys and other parents a look over from the doorway.  We leave, peering our heads over the bushes outside into the classroom window as we walk away.

We go to IHOP for breakfast and what will be the longest hour of my life.  I scan the menu through watery eyes and begin to cry,  asking my husband if we did the right thing by starting her in school this early.  If she is too little to play with other kids.  If we are selfish for wanting some structure in our house and some relief for the brevity of two and half hours, two days a week.  He assures me we have done the right thing, that she is ready for this, and looks calm and collected perusing the syrup choices. The waitress comes to take our order and I haphazardly pick something that is neither a waffle or a pancake.

I try to reassure myself that I'm not the only anxious parent worrying about how her child is going to be cared for.  That the teachers are professionals who will hold my daughter's hand if she cries, make sure other kids don't bully her, feed her if she is hungry, change her if she is wet, and keep her safe.  But the mind starts to wander into really insane territory when one thinks of all of the bad things that can happen to her child when out of her care. And I think I'd just feel a lot better if a moat and drawbridge were installed to keep out predators for the short amount of time my daughter will be under someone else's watch.

My husband reminds me to think of all of the fun things ahead.  All of the paintings and drawings that will litter our fridge.  All the new words and songs she will learn, along with the new friends she will make.  I shove the last bit of tasteless eggs in my mouth and consider how this could be the start of many wonderful things for my daughter despite the number of bad habits and earaches she will also likely take home.

We walk back to the school, my legs still stiff yet moving quickly.  A child screams in the distance as we turn the corner.  My husband and I look at each other. Though it could be any kid, we know it sounds like our daughter   We follow the sound to the school yard to find her squealing with delight as her teacher pushes her in the swing.  The thing she hates to do when we visit parks.  Her smile is wide.  Her legs carelessly flailing back and forth.  A warmth fills my chest, melting the tension in my neck.

Other parents enter the yard and the kids run to greet them.  It takes a few more swings and a ride on the bouncing pony for my daughter to finally acknowledge us.  When she is the only kid left in the yard and her teachers are blurry eyed and eager to go home, I pick her up and tell her its time to leave.  She kicks and screams as I get her through the gate.   I pass her to my husband along with the sippy cup I kept in my bag.  My husband asks her how school was.  "I had fun," she says and he lifts her up onto his shoulders so she can touch the leaves on the walk home.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with icing and eating cupcakes, playing with her new sandwich set for her kitchen and calls from Grandma and Pop to check in.  I expect to hear all about school as I have about trips to the pool, play dates, and the zoo.  Brief,  inarticulate recaps of what she did but she offers nothing.  I spend the rest of the day cloudy from the adrenaline crash, re-energizing with cupcakes and praying for a nap.

The next day my legs move a bit more fluidly as we walk to school, this time accompanied by Brobie from Yo Gabba Gabba tight in my daughter's grasp.   "Oh school!!"  she gasps as we turn the corner.  She walks in and quickly proceeds to the tiny cars and ramps.  I take off her backpack and jacket, trying to catch her attention to tell her I'm leaving  She gives me a half kiss with no eye contact.  I put her book bag on the rack and get a nod from her teacher who is talking to another parent.  A glance that lets me know she's aware my child is here and that there is nothing else for me to do but go on with my day.