What a sweet idea, for my kids’ day school to invite the parents to come once a week for “parent tefillah,” to share morning prayers with our children.
My youngest, who had by first grade outgrown the drop-off drama of day care and nursery school, loved for me and my husband to come to the classroom. In those first weeks of kindergarten, it was a beautiful shared moment. My daughter would sit on my lap and snuggle into me, as we sang together thanking God for this day. It brought tears to my eyes, to feel her close, not yet embarrassed to cuddle in public, which I knew from my older kids would happen without warning all too soon. I would close my eyes, breathe in the smell of her hair, and thank God for this gift, this child, this school, this moment.
But then came time for the parents to leave. Any joy I felt was devoured by the monster of a tantrum erupting from my otherwise adorable gift of a child. She was not the only one. Children around the room clung to parents, reverting suddenly back to their toddler years. My own daughter’s tactic was to instantly grow 50 pounds heavier, a trick of magic designed to make it impossible for me to stand up or walk. It would take two adults to pry her from my body. When I would finally break free her teachers would have to hold her back with their full strength, her little body straining to break free, arms stretching out for me, tears streaming down her contorted face. Any serenity I might have felt moments earlier would morph into a combination of frustration, anger, resentment, and guilt.
Kindergarten turned into first grade. Instead of getting better, it got worse. I started to avoid going to the weekly sessions, asking my husband to go in my stead, making up excuses to our daughter. When I did go, it always started off so meaningfully; but saying goodbye was torturous. As I left the school each week I’d be fuming: The kids should be past this. I’ve been doing this parent tefillah thing for too many years to have the patience for this. My two older kids never carried on like this. I’m late for work. I don’t have time for this. This is not quality time with my child. I would rage (in my head) against the teachers, the head of school, the system. They should make this a monthly thing instead of weekly. They should cancel it altogether. Don’t they know this is a burden on the parents and painful for the kids?
Funny how it never occurred to me that maybe part of my daughter’s separation anxiety was a reflection of my own rush to leave the room, to avoid that part of her. Despite years of mindfulness practice and pastoral experiences teaching me over and over that presence is key to handling any difficult moment, it never occurred to me to apply that to this weekly recurring scene.
Until the very last week of my youngest child’s first grade year. The final parent tefillah I would ever experience as a mother. The one I clung to as much as she did.
This time as tefillah came to a close, I found myself as reluctant as she was for the moment to end. I didn’t want her to get off my lap. I didn’t want the singing to stop. I didn’t want her to run off and enjoy her friends. I wanted, for just a few more minutes, for her to be my snuggly little girl. As she wailed, I sat there and held her. I suddenly knew: I have all the time in the world for this. I didn’t make a move to stand up. I didn’t try to rise or enlist gravity in sliding her from my lap. I stayed with her in the moment, because her grief that our time together that morning had ended was my grief too: the grief of a mother watching her youngest child grow up.
And wouldn’t you know it? Turns out that’s just what she needed. To have me just sit there. To have me share her feelings, her pain, and not rush her through it because I was in a rush to get on with my day, or—more deeply—because I was avoiding her sadness, fear, and overwhelming need for me. Pastoral education 101: When someone is sitting in the pit of despair, you climb down into the pit with them. Why had it taken me so long to realize that this applies to parenthood, too?
After a few minutes of our sitting there together, her sobs subsided. She still wasn’t slithering off my lap, but she was starting to look around the room, interested in what her friends were doing. We stood up. She clung to me, her arms around my waist. But she had stopped crying and was quiet. Most of the children had already said goodbye to their parents. A few were still at full-throttle tantrum mode.
Finally my daughter took my hand. And as I choked back my tears, she walked me to the door.
She was ready for me to go, and for the first time all year, all I wanted was to stay. In that moment I learned: The rush to get on with my day had never been necessary. The time to separate was always going to come.