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Challenge: Back to School

To the Mom in the Preschool Drop-Off Line

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To the Mom in the Preschool Drop-Off Line:

I see your child before class, so sweet and small and pure of heart. I see those chubby cheeks, that baby face, reminders that this little person who is growing oh-so-quickly was swaddled in your arms not long ago. I see him clinging to your leg, his knuckles white, his eyes glossy with tears that are just about to spill.

His anxiety is running high, and so is yours, but your acting skills have come a long way this year, Mom. You deserve a round of applause, a standing ovation. You should get an Oscar, really, for pretending that preschool drop-off doesn’t bother you, that helping the teacher peel your crying child off your body one finger at a time is no big deal, that watching the director pull your sobbing little guy from your car doesn’t feel like your heart is being crunched in a vice. You don’t want to make the situation worse, and your child is anxious enough on his own, so you do your best to appear cool and calm. You don’t have the minutes or the privacy to meditate before preschool since small children are always running circles around you, but you try to channel your inner yogi while zipping the jackets and buckling the car seats and running back in the house for that thing you forgot.

You start the engine each morning knowing exactly what is going to happen. It's an uneasy feeling that gets your adrenaline pumping so that this drive to school is somehow similar to dipping your toe into a shark tank or leaping from a plane when you are afraid of heights. Or maybe this routine is more like having a tooth pulled. It might be necessary. It might be the right thing to do. It might pay off in the long run. But it is also painful. And you choose to do this three mornings a week. Who has a tooth pulled three times a week? Eventually, you would run out of teeth.

The teachers at school are very nice. They smile. They tell you that, although the first ten minutes are difficult, your child is usually fine after that. He asks about you often and watches the clock, but he has friends and is learning quickly and likes to paint and loves the playground. They really enjoy him, they say, and you know that they do, but you sense frustration. Maybe you should try a sticker chart to encourage him not to sob inconsolably every day? Maybe you should offer a reward for good behavior if he does not cry for a week? Maybe it would be better if you did not walk him to class but used the drop-off point outside instead?

And you wonder, “Do they honestly think I haven’t tried these things?”

The truth is that you have tried everything. You are still trying everything. You have sought advice from every mom you know. You have read every mommy blog that you can find. You have asked the preschool director and the pediatrician for ideas. No one has found a solution to this problem. And maybe there is no solution because there isn’t a problem. There is a child. Your child. Your child, whom you love to the moon and back, who experiences separation anxiety. Maybe that is just who he is and you cannot change it and it is going to take time for him to learn the strategies he needs to cope. Maybe you need people to understand and accept it. Maybe you need to accept it, too.

You remember that your older son cried once when you left him at preschool. After school, you talked to him. You looked him in the eyes. You asked him why he cried. He wasn't sure. You asked him if he was afraid at school, if everyone was nice to him. He loved his class and his teachers and his friends. You explained that he was going to go to school whether he cried or not, so wouldn't it be better to enjoy his time at school? Mommy would pick him up every day, right on time, and she wanted him to have fun with his friends.

He never cried another day.

Other moms told you not to worry. This would last only a few days. He would stop crying when he got into the routine. "It's normal," they said. "My kids cried for a few days, too."

Then they said to give it a few weeks. It would be fine. Really, it would. Maybe their children had been sad a little longer than they had remembered, yes, now that they thought about it, but soon those kids were skipping down the halls in a rush to get to class. “Trust me,” they said. “It won’t last!”

Now they don’t say anything. They just smile, a sideways kind of smile with a cocked eyebrow that shows empathy. But you wonder if they are thinking about where you must have failed as a mother. Because that is what you are thinking. It has to be your fault. Did you hold him too much or too little? Is it because you decided to stay home with him for a few years? That sacrifice seemed selfless at the time, but was it selfish? Is it because you moved, and it took time to trust people, and he was with you, and you only, so much of the time? Or did you genetically bless him with your own anxieties? What a horrible gift. What did you do, and how do you unravel it now? Maybe you need to be more understanding. Maybe you need to be more stern. How do you stop your child’s suffering?

This is the cry of your heart, but you are a smart lady, and your mind knows better. It is not your fault. The pediatrician said that it is not your fault. You know that everyone faces unique challenges that must be overcome, and your children will be no exception. You had just hoped that those challenges would not start so early, with your sweet little boy facing anxiety, real anxiety, at just four years old.

I know that you use the drop-off line, because that is what the teachers asked you to do, and that you smile as the director lovingly drags (because there is no other way) your child from the car. I know that you thank her every day for her patience. I know that it makes you sad to see the line of cars behind you, all of those moms and dads watching your child make his dramatic entrance every day. I know how hopeful you are whenever he has a good day, or a good week, or a good month, and how devastated you feel when a new wave of anxiety consumes him and it all starts again.

I know that when you pull out of the parking lot some days, your stoic façade cracks, and tears stream down your cheeks all the way home.

I know that you are a person who likes to be in control of your life, and it is hard for you to accept that this is out of your control. You want to fix things for your kids, to make them happy, and you cannot fix this. I know that you know that this child is a tremendous blessing and that other parents face greater challenges, but I give you permission to feel what you feel. Your sadness and guilt and anger are real, and problems are all relative, anyway.

I know that it will get better, that your child will grow and he will mature and he will learn about his emotions and how he can cope. He may outgrow his anxiety, or he may not, but he can learn to manage it with time. I know that he will eventually go to school without tears, but it may be a long time before that happens, and that is okay. I know that your child is his own person with his own schedule. I know that you are trying very hard and that you will find loving, supportive friends who will understand. I know that his anxiety does not diminish his kindness, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his loving heart. I know that you have an amazing kid.

Most of all, I know that he is really, REALLY lucky to have you on his team.


The Mom Who Won the Oscar for “Best Performance at a Preschool Drop-Off” in 2010

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