It’s his third day of first grade, and he’s (still) not having it.
“I don’t like school! I don’t like this class! I don’t want to be here! I want to go back to kindergarten!”
He is more stubborn than sad, pulling his brow low over his eyes and tucking his chin back towards his neck as he makes his entire body rigid against the gentle encouragement of my hands to take one more step toward the door of his classroom.
I watch other parents saunter past us, gazing lovingly over their shoulders while their precious first graders hang up their backpacks and eagerly greet Ms. Cindi. The children flash big grins at their parents, accompanied by sheepish little shoulder shrugs that suggest the beginning of an emotional self-awareness that might be the final threshold into big kid land. The parents nod knowingly at each other, acknowledging how adorable each other’s children are and sharing in the disbelief that they’re this old now, old enough to be happily dropped off from 8:30am until 3pm to learn about photosynthesis and math and peer pressure.
But the peer pressure isn’t working on my kid. I see him sneak peeks of his classmates from the corner of his eye as he maintains his scowl. The ease with which they follow their parents’ instructions to hang up their backpacks, take out their communication folders, line up to greet the teacher and “Have a great day, honey!” only seem to strengthen my son’s resolve to do the opposite. His hands are clenched into fists at his side now, and he’s responding to me only in defiant grunts.
My son has been going to various forms of daycare since he was a baby. First it was the church nursery, then the gym childcare, and then MOPS, all before he was six months old. Not a single tear. Never any hesitation about being handed off to a smiling stranger who greeted him against a backdrop of outdated Noah’s Ark wallpaper. Not once.
When he was two, I went back to work and started dropping him off at a woman named Maria’s house three days a week. This was the real deal—no pager for me to come get him if he was having a hard time, no “we’re just down the hall” reassurances, no friends volunteering there to give me a behind-the-scenes report at pick up. This was a woman I mostly did not know, who spoke broken English and did not own a cell phone, who would be my son’s primary caregiver for nine hours a day, three days a week while I was across town both loving and questioning my time away from him.
The first time I dropped him off at Maria’s he was like a kid in a candy store. All the new toys. The three or four other toddlers to play with. The janky boom box playing a nursery rhyme cassette tape. The smell of pancakes coming from the kitchen. I chased after him to say goodbye, but he was more interested in this new wonderland of fun than in me. I was smart enough to be grateful for that, and then I sat in my car and cried.
Drop offs are hard.
I thought the lack of separation anxiety in his infancy and toddlerhood meant I had escaped that hardship entirely. He was a climber and a risk-taker and an extreme extrovert who wanted to give me a play-by-play of his every curious thought—I thought I’d be budgeting my emotional energies toward those motherhood taxes for the next decade or two, receiving an exemption from the separation anxiety tax.
But then mysteriously, inexplicably, elementary school has brought on a new kind of difficulty during drop off. He did this for a few weeks in kindergarten—out of nowhere after an easy first month—and once we worked through that I naively thought we were done with drop offs being difficult.
But here we are, on day three of first grade. I’m kneeling beside him, a hot mess of empathy, frustration and self consciousness. I don’t know a lot of these other parents yet, these saunterers with the sheepishly grinning children. I work during the days, so I don’t do a lot of in-class volunteering, and besides, I’m terrible at gardening and crafts anyway. It seems like they all know each other while they exchange easy pleasantries and wave at their compliant children, while I am down on the ground pleading with a child who looks exactly like me to please just walk into the classroom like all the other kids. They look at with me with understanding or pity or confusion, and regardless of their expression I just feel more unsure of what I’m supposed to do and more certain they are Good Parents Getting It Right and I am something other than that.
“I have to drop your brother off at preschool and then I have to go to work,” I tell my six-year-old again. “You have to go to school.” I explain that I’ll be staring at a computer in a quiet room all day, with no other children around to play with, hoping he might recognize that his request to stay with me all day isn’t actually a very exciting option. I try to distract him with questions about what he’ll do at recess or who he’ll partner with during art. I bribe him with the possibility of an after school trip to the ice cream shop. He is undeterred by any of it. Fists still clenched. Brow still furrowed. Body unmoving.
He is stubborn and willful and unconcerned with following rules or pleasing people when it doesn’t align with his own beliefs. I suspect this current phase of drop off rebellion has more to do with flexing his muscle than with having a hard time being away from me. Ms. Cindi confirms that he’s doing great in class—social, outgoing, bright, and happy. None of that surprises me; that’s the kind of kid he’s always been.
But he needs us to know that he’s his own person, too. That we can lay out the plan and set the expectation and tell him how it’s going to go, but that he will come to the table with his own ideas, too. He takes nothing lying down.
Ms. Cindi walkie-talkies the front office, and a secretary arrives to offer back-up. She is a skilled negotiator, and I am grateful to let her take the reins. Eventually, an offer to play with a snowman toy in her office until he’s ready to join the class is accepted, and he skips off with hardly a glance back at me. I am relieved and furious and heartbroken.
He wants me too much or not enough. It is too hard for him to be away from me, or it is too easy. It’s a never-ending dance of too close and too far, too fast and too slow, too much leading and too much following. And I never really know which move will come next. Which kid he’ll be today. Which mom I’ll be. How exactly the drop off will go.
On the third day of first grade he was defiant until he was happy, and I was desperate until he was agreeable. He ultimately skipped off to have a great day of learning, playing and being the smart, funny, confident kid he is. And before I drove off to a job that I love, and before I returned to pick him up like none of it had ever happened, I sat in my car and cried.