What is it about this particular milestone that we hold so sacred that we’re humorless about it? Is it because school is the first environment our kids enter without us, and so serves as a proving ground of parenting? If your child is crying, is it because you haven’t done enough to prepare them for the world?
In one of my mother’s many photo albums (mine was a well-documented childhood even before smartphones), there’s a picture of me on my first day of kindergarten. I’m getting on the school bus, long brown hair in pigtails, Rainbow Bright backpack slung across my shoulders, giving my mother a smile before disappearing into the dark maw of the bus with my neighborhood friends. I do not look afraid because I wasn’t afraid. I’d been anticipating this day for months, a day that marked my getting older. As an only child who preferred to sit at the grown-up table, what I most wanted was to join the world of “responsibility,” which I took to mean importance. Homework was a word like siren song. I couldn’t wait to have it.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I have a child of my own who will enter public school for the first time this week. For the past 4.5 years, my husband and I have been dreaming of this day. Because we’re teachers ourselves, we’re intrinsically excited for all the learning ahead of Benna—we can’t wait for art projects on the fridge and blocky-lettered notes and Christmas plays and reading that goes beyond memorizing her favorite books. But more than that, we’re looking to our own future: No more daycare bills! Debt management! Actual savings in our savings account! Maybe even a vacation that doesn’t involve a basement studio AirBnB for $92 a night!
But our enthusiasm for this next phase of parenting has been dampened by one crucial factor: Benna is not excited. She’s terrified, and no amount of whataboutism can penetrate her fear. She doesn’t care about a bigger playground or new friends. All she sees is that things are going to change, and change = hell no.
I’ve written about the boons of raising a highly sensitive child. I stand by my claims that their heightened empathy and perceptive skills are beautiful to behold and can be channeled for things that seem incongruous with the personality type, like leadership and the performing arts. I wouldn’t trade my emotionally-aware, can-sit-in-her-room-and-draw-for-two-hours kiddo for anything in the world. But I don’t think we’ll be taking one of those adorable photos with the miniature chalkboard announcing that I’m Going to Kindergarten! I’m more concerned about how we’re going to get her inside the school. I know there will be buckets of tears, and despite what other parents say about how it’s harder on us than on them, I’m pretty confident that’s not true in our case. I expect the teacher is going to have to peel Benna off me like a wad of gum.
A pit of dread opens inside me when I imagine this scene. Parents often internalize the behavior of their kids, especially in public, because we sense judgment all around. Once, I watched a server roll her eyes as she walked away from a table with a screaming child, and then I noticed it everywhere—the eyerolls in restaurants when I broke out the iPad, the heavy sighs when I carried Benna onto a plane, the miffed expressions on strangers’ faces when she rebuffed them in line at the grocery store. Some kids throw forks and scratch faces when they’re upset, but the kids who cry a lot get similarly ostracized. They’re seen as sheltered or coddled, lacking the leathery hide we value in a tough love society.
“I feel nervous that society sees it as some behavior we’ve condoned, or that we’ve coddled him, or haven’t ‘pushed’ him hard enough,” my friend Eliza says about her school-age son, who is staying in his current preschool for one more year. “But the fact is, going to preschool every day can feel like a BIG push. Just getting him out the door can be a push. His little brain and little heart can’t help but think about what’s going to go wrong.”
Eliza worries that her son’s anxiety will overpower his curious and cerebral nature. Right now, he has many interests—music, art, math, building, reading. It’s clear that learning itself isn’t the problem; on the contrary, he loves it. But Eliza knows he’ll struggle to focus on his passions if he’s overloaded with fear. “I worry so deeply that his anxiety around school will squash that natural love,” she says.
My worries echo Eliza’s, and also veers into Benna’s social development. She’s rocketing from a daycare group of four children to a class of 22. Over the summer, we’ve attended her new school’s open houses and watched as Benna struggled to participate in the activities while so much human energy churned around her. At one of these events, she took a seat at a table strewn with art supplies and spent 45 minutes peeling and smoothing stickers on a strip of construction paper. All around us, 4- and 5-year-olds shrieked and ran, grabbing scissors and crayons with abandon, their parents chasing after them trying to keep up. Benna didn’t lift her eyes from the fold-out table even once. Her lower lip trembled as she peeled and stuck those stickers so methodically. If my husband or I strayed more than two feet from her, she crumbled into tears. She didn’t approach another child all night.
Every year at Christmas, social media is flooded with photos of children crying in Santa’s lap, and every year I wince a little. Kids having overblown reactions can be funny—just check out Reasons My Son is Crying. But their skinny outstretched arms straining to reach Mom or Dad just out of frame tugs at my heart. I can feel their fear and confusion through the screen.
We don’t have a canon of kids crying on the first day of school. Ever notice that? What is it about this particular milestone that we hold so sacred that we’re humorless about it? Is it because school is the first environment our kids enter without us, and so serves as a proving ground of parenting? If your child is crying, is it because you haven’t done enough to prepare them for the world?
I feel like half my parenting life has been explaining my kid to others. I talk about separation anxiety and sensory issues, but there’s an undercurrent of embarrassment in my voice as I apologize to a family member when Benna won’t come downstairs to greet them, or when she spends the entirety of her fourth birthday in her room because the party is too noisy. It isn’t that I don’t understand how she feels—I often felt the same way in those situations when I was a kid. The difference is that the adults around me praised me when I imitated their behavior and showed emotional restraint, and we’ve never expected that of Benna. My mother comments on how easily I was left in others’ care, even sounding a little retroactively hurt by how I marched unflinchingly onto that school bus. But the truth is, I remember times when I ached for her and felt my secret outsider-ness as everyone played around me, and just swallowed it because good girls didn’t cry for their moms.
“I’m noticing a ton of grief coming up for me about my school experience,” another mom friend tells me, describing how she exhausted herself trying to stifle her anxiety. “I also know I’m participating in the work that parenting so often presents (forces upon?) us, of growing ourselves up and self-mothering in the places we need extra love from the past.”
Self-mothering. I’m struck hard by this. I realize that a lot of my parenting has been in response to the pressure I felt as a kid to fit in, and how earning high marks for an immaculate performance steered me toward an unhealthy relationship with praise. My grandfather, a dentist who saw himself as part of refined society, granted or withheld affection depending on how well I played the piano, how high I scored on my spelling tests, how perfectly I executed my table manners. I still live by what others think of me, which has the ironic effect of turning some people off—they detect the neediness in me. They see the deep insecurity and wonder what ugly truths it’s based on.
I refuse to treat my daughter’s “scenes” the way mine were treated when I’d finally crack and melt down at home around my family. I will not call Benna a drama queen. And I won’t pull out my phone to document her anguish as she faces her first day of school—I’ll be too busy doing what I can to help her through it, to focus on my own brave face instead of insisting that she find hers.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her most recent collection of essays, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize and can be purchased directly at amymonticellowriter.com. Other work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and Brain, Child Magazine online. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.