In all my failings as a mother (thus far, and there are so many to come), I have failed most spectacularly at sending my children off to school.
My own productions at drop-offs and pickups exhaust me—but I can’t seem to part ways with them. “How was his day,” I’ll gasp, all but gripping the doorframe for support. Did he eat all his lunch? Did he find the robot drawing under his thermos? Was he capable of emotionally processing the robot and all of its implications of my love?
I’ll show up breathless at a preschool after being parted—voluntarily, though it never feels that way at the time—from my child for three hours. The teachers smile at me, and I smile at them, and we share a joke—one I can make about my own self, because I know how this looks—about how I’ll learn to relax, just give me a week, and before I know it three hours won’t feel like enough!
But then a week does pass, and then three more months do, and I’m still bounding up the stairwell at a quarter to dismissal, still sometimes literally putting my ear to the door. When the time comes to open it, the teachers aren’t smiling so much at me now, or, if they are, it’s a nervous type of smile. What I haven’t told either of them: This is not my first preschool. This is not my first child. It is my third child, and I’m speaking from experience when I say that I am so sorry, but this is not going to get better, for any of us. Also do they need a room mother? I’ve never been room mother but I feel like I could be good at it.
What do I think is going to happen in there? To that question, I have come up with no shortage of answers, because my oldest child is turning 7 this year, and when I think back on the past seven years, it’s tempting to consider them in terms of successes: first solids, first steps, first wobbly bike ride. But the reality is that every one of those first steps came with a subsequent fall. That my son lost a front tooth knocking it out on that bike’s handlebars. That he was eating solids for two years before it dawned on us that he didn’t just not like eggs, but was allergic to them—and that we’d been feeding them to him on a regular basis.
Anything can go wrong, even though there is little doubt that the teachers—who are credentialed, recommended and by all measures trustworthy—likely provide a higher quality of care than I do. As for the teachers: It’s worse than they think. I drive by at recess time to monitor my son on the playground. This is a thing I have actually done. I have furthermore, prior to registering, posited myself at the park across the street from the school so I could faux-casually interrogate other moms about their children’s academic experiences.
The preconception about me is that I have too much time on my hands, but I could weep for time, and the things I would do with it, other than drive myself senseless circling schoolyards at recess.
My own parents weren’t like this; my husband is not like this. I’m not friends with other people who behave the way I do, because the thought of spending time with someone like that sounds awful. In a social setting, I will deny, deny, deny, because I know helicoptering is bad for my kids. I can’t protect them forever, they have to learn how to problem-solve. I know all the arguments. The two sides have been duking it out in my head every 15 minutes or so for the past seven years.
I care a lot, and I struggle with boundaries.
But also: I send in the best snacks when it’s our turn to bring snacks. I always volunteer for the field trip. A teacher only need hint at the need for a new printer cartridge and I’m there the next day with the Target gift card. None of the worst-case scenarios I’ve imagined playing out at the schools have played out—nothing to trigger an enduring emotional shutdown, no call for the unsheathing of EpiPens—and by the end of the year I like to think that we, the teachers and I, are all feeling reasonably OK about things, or at least acting OK, if only in exchange for the gift cards that value more than double the worth of any ink cartridge at Target.
So to you teachers, let’s agree here and now that we’ll take this next year together, three hours at a time. And if one of us should hit a bad bump in the road, you should know about the robot drawing; it’s always tucked under the thermos.
Susan Anspach is a product of Northern Virginia’s schools, swim teams and cultural mores. She apologizes by way of Target gift card.