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It’s My Kid’s First Day of School, and I’ll Cry If I Want To

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“I didn’t see that much crying this morning… from any of you!” the principal commented to the assembled parents as part of his first-day-of-school shtick. Nervous laughter rippled across the room, accompanied by a lot of downcast eyes.

As a group, we tried mightily to not be embarrassed. I’m not sure we succeeded. This was a year ago, just after Labor Day, when I attended my first “boo hoo breakfast”—a parenting ritual I never knew even existed, (nevermind inspired its own set of Pinterest projects). In some ways, the wry title aside, the breakfast at least acknowledged that parents have feelings about these major life transitions.

And yet something about this title felt so trivializing.

My son has never been a “drop off and go” kind of a guy. As a baby, his pediatrician diagnosed him with early separation anxiety. At age two, he started at a preschool co-op where parents were encouraged to stay until their kids mastered “learning to separate”—something I was astonished to realize was actually part of the curriculum. It took a long time for him to trust his teachers—and for me to trust them as well—but eventually, we did.

Flash forward to last fall. At four, he was eligible for transitional kindergarten—California’s answer to kids who would have entered kindergarten if the age cut off hadn’t been pushed back to September.

I’d been nervous all summer about pulling him out of his now-beloved preschool and sending him into the loud dynamics of an elementary school with big kids racing around at pickup and drop off—all of which I knew he’d encounter, no matter how nurturing his own classroom would be. I was even more dismayed when an email from the school made it clear that no parents would be allowed past the gate for the first few weeks—the kids would be strictly on their own.

I’m a Jewish mother. I worry But what I came to find particularly galling was how my concerns about the school’s no-parent policy—based firmly on my son’s uber-glacial adjustment to preschool—were consistently met with dismissal by others. “Oh, he’ll be fine,” “kids adjust so easily at that age,” then tipped into polite accusation—“you’re hovering,” “you’re worrying too much,” and the classic, “you just need to let him go.”

It’s hard to know how to respond without sounding sheepish, defensive, or apologetic. Most of all, what these comments made me feel was dismissed. I felt a low-simmering anger start to boil, compounded by the sense it wasn’t acceptable to defend my feelings.

The subtext I heard was that this is the natural order of things (not arguing); he needs to learn independence (also onboard), and that I was somehow at fault for being sad or concerned (nope, not buying it).

What I found vaguely insulting, even low-level infuriating, was the lack of acknowledgement at how hard these things are—for both parent and child.

A few years ago, when I read this mother’s letter to other parents on the first day of kindergarten, I cried. I identified with the thousand micro-steps it took to get to that drop off and the often “invisible labor” behind each one—labor that is emotional as well as physical. Yet this mom only felt allowed to cry in her car.

Letting go is part of the process of having a child—but so should be acknowledging the challenge and grief this also incurs.

I’m not advocating that parents bawl right alongside their arms-outstretched toddlers at preschool or pre-K, or (as I saw last year), their arms-outstretched-four-year-olds (now with significantly stronger arms with which to cling). I recognize that exuding calm and confidence (to the extent that it’s possible) gives kids the boost they might need to cross the threshold. But I am advocating not hiding justifiably powerful feelings.

The “get over it/accept it/hide it” edict, most often directed towards mothers, smacks to me of a “women are too emotional” kind of blanket statement that prescribes  silence and denial. It trivializes parents and minimizes their feelings. “My husband thinks I’m nuts” is a whispered refrain I caught from other moms who were feeling emotional at drop off. Why should the trace of “crazy” be attached to voicing these feelings, or be overlaid with so much shame they need to be whispered?

Despite its name, (which grants a kind of wry permission), a “boo hoo breakfast” is a way of marking this time for parents. But the widespread retorts that I encountered from family and friends (mostly without kids), nevermind the anxious joking in the room, is what I question.

The sense of loss is undoubtedly stronger for some than for others, but the brush off, at whatever level, is a way of telling parents to tamp down their feelings. Nevermind, if a parent is too business-like or unsentimental that might also be cause for accusation—again making this passage one in which emotions have to be calibrated—rather than letting individuals feel (and express) whatever they need—whether that’s a business-like “bye,” or a more tearful one.

We still have another week before I take my son back to his school to stand on the bottom step of the long staircase ahead as he start his “real” kindergarten year.

I’d like to think the lessons we learned last year will carry over and that we’ll get through this fall transition without too much emotional grief. But if there are tears, whether his or mine, I hope we’ll both be allowed to express them.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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