This week my 3-year-old starts preschool. It’s only two days a week, and only the mornings, but still–it’s school. We’ve been talking about it a lot. We called my mom to see if she could find a picture of me on my first day of school, and we ordered my daughter a new special dress online for her first day picture (don’t worry, it was cheap—I anticipate it coming home covered in paint and glue!) Her teachers are coming over for a home visit to introduce themselves and get to know Abigail a little bit. And I think my little girl is going to adore this whole thing.
My mommy friends and I have been talking a lot about how starting preschool works. There seems to be this universal thing called phase-in, where the children go for short periods of time, sometimes with only half of their classmates, to help them get used to the classroom, the teachers, and the routines of school. Parents are often expected to stay in the room or the building in case our kids get nervous and need us. It’s a gradual process to make kids feel comfortable. There’s no pulling off the band-aid here. Just a slow, gentle, easing-in.
Which makes sense. After all, the kids are only 3. They need lots of preparation to get ready for everything, even things as simple as getting out the door (this is how it goes in my house: okay, we’re going to leave in five minutes, so put away your toys, go use the potty, yes, you have to use the potty before we leave the house. Now go find your socks, oh, you don’t like those, then get new ones, put on your socks, do you want help? No, then do it yourself. Oh now you need help? Okay I will help you. Now your shoes. Oops, sorry, I forgot you wanted to do the velcro yourself. Do you want to walk or ride the stroller? Great, can you open the door? Phew, let’s go!)
But I’ve been thinking that phase-in isn’t just for the kids. After all, sending your child to school for the first time is momentous for us parents, too. Our babies are turning into big kids, and that’s a big deal. In Judaism, we always use ritual to mark life’s major events. From a baby naming to a bat mitzvah, we sanctify the passage of time. I’ve been thinking that the ritual most appropriate for my daughter’s first day of school is havdalah.
Havdalah comes from the word l’havdil, to separate, and is a special ritual designed to separate the holiness of Shabbat from the regularity of the rest of the week. As my little one gets ready to walk out the door that morning, it’s truly a time of separation. Of new beginnings, of big changes, and of limitless possibility.
My daughter doesn’t need any kind of havdalah or separation ritual. She’s ready to go, can’t wait to get started, so excited to go to school like the other big kids. Me, I need a moment. My daughter and I have spent a lot of time together in her short life. I’ve only worked part-time in the last three years, so really, it’s been the two of us, every day. I’m not quite ready to let go of the fact that my firstborn is no longer a baby (even though I now have a new baby in my life too). Separation isn’t as easy for the parents as it is for the kids at this age. I know my daughter is ready for it and wants it, but I’m just a few steps behind.
So on Thursday morning, I’ll mumble a little havdalah blessing under my breath on our way out the door. Maybe I’ll add a tiny shecheyanu too–praised be God who gave us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this amazing moment. And give her a quick kiss and hug, and never let her see my tears. Because I am so proud of her, and can’t wait to hear all about her own separate journey.