I never wanted a baby.
When my younger self envisioned having a family someday, she skipped right past the days of early childhood. I never once pictured snuggling a sleepy baby in the crook of my arm after a midnight feeding or holding my arms out to a curious one-year-old taking those first halting steps. I definitely never thought about the spit-up stains that would grace the front of every shirt I own or the logistics of changing a blowout diaper on a floppy baby who couldn’t hold up her own head.
I was delusional even when I was pregnant, dreaming of the baby who was still being formed. I saw myself standing in a school hallway, breathing the smell of pencils and books while I watched for my kids to come skipping joyfully down the hall.
Their backpacks would spill over with worksheets and art projects. They would chase their friends while I chatted with the other moms and shared a friendly wave with the teacher.
I would be the field trip mom, the mom who gave friendly pointers to new parents, the mom who knew all the kids in the class by name. My kids would always be early to school, dressed in weather appropriate attire, never missing a signed form or completed assignment.
This was what I dreamed of when I dreamed of motherhood. It was as though I planned on giving birth to a seven-year-old.
But then I had a baby, and instead of immediately waltzing into first grade and leaving her in the hands of her teacher, I had to raise her myself. There was no school calendar to follow, no neat list of forms to fill out or supplies to acquire to ensure my success as a parent.
Instead there was screaming, missed naptimes, and breastmilk soaked into every porous surface in our house. There was no routine, no doing my hair, and definitely no knowing what I was doing.
I began the countdown to preschool immediately.
My daughter has a mid-August birthday; she’ll probably be the youngest in her class for her entire life. Other parents, ones that aren’t quite so desperate to kick their children out of the nest, might have fussed over her school readiness. Even my husband has turned to me more than once and said, “Are you sure we shouldn’t wait a year?”
I was sure.
It was late June when the first informational email arrived, the one I’d been dreaming of for years. Finally, my first assignment as a school mom!
I read the email, and the thirteen attachments that came with it, three times each. Why are there so many events for parents? Can my kids come to these, or do I have to find a sitter? Do I really need to know about the Valentine’s Day candy policy in June?
I figured out which of the three school calendars my daughter’s class would be following and deciphered that we should choose an “optional but encouraged” volunteer workday to attend. My daughter could meet her teacher, and, the email explained, the kids would feel ownership for their education if they helped out as well.
Attending optional-but-encouraged events sounded like the right thing for a good school mom to do. Far be it from me to rob my daughter of the chance to take responsibility for her learning before it even began. I hauled both kids into their car seats immediately after lunch on the appointed day, hoping to fulfill our volunteer duties before the one-year-old needed her afternoon nap.
With the baby secured in the Ergo and her sister holding tightly to my hand, we crossed the parking lot to the propped-open metal door. A mom volunteer pointed me toward a sign-in sheet where I would check off my daughter’s name and find her classroom number.
I thanked her and make a mental note that they still take roll call at optional events. Showing up was the right move for my good school mom status.
We turned down the hallway to find Room 4 and were met with a narrow space made even narrower by two single-file lines of moms, kids, and strollers pressed against either side of the hallway. Everyone wielded sponges and buckets brimming with soap, scrubbing at coat hooks and drying racks and easels.
A chirpy voice from a classroom on the left said, “Hi there! Are you a new mom?” I hadn’t thought of myself as a new mom in more than two years, but “yes” was clearly the right answer here.
Miss Megan, who was not my child’s teacher but who could help us get started anyway, revealed that the volunteers don’t actually work inside the classrooms. “You can choose any of our items that need cleaning from this table, then just pick a spot in the hallway to work. Here, this one could use a good scrub!” She handed over a white plastic bucket that was already clean but sported a bright blue paint stain that looked like it was never coming off.
I herded my timid three year old down the crowded hallway to a small closet with a sink and awkwardly filled the bucket with water one-handed because she refused to let go of me. As we turned to claim a tiny piece of hallway floor for our cleaning area, I slopped water from the bucket down the front of my pants after I was thrown off balance by the baby strapped to my chest, who decided she suddenly, vehemently, wanted out of the carrier and was going to fling her weight from side to side to make sure I knew it.
The next thirty minutes were spent trying (and failing) to keep the floor dry as I coaxed my preschooler into scrubbing at the bucket stain while I repeatedly stopped her sister from being trampled by big kids rushing through the full hallway. This was not how I imagined our entry into the world of school.
Every nerve in my body was on edge in that tiny, noisy, unfamiliar space. I glanced at my daughter and saw my own feelings reflected on her tiny face: her eyes were wide and a little watery, like they were close to tears. I placed the still-paint-stained bucket back on the table for someone else to scrub endlessly, and we left without saying goodbye to the teacher who wasn’t hers.
I sat in the car for a beat in the parking lot, taking a deep breath with my hands splayed wide across the steering wheel. My shirt was damp with sweat and water; my kids were cranky in their car seats. Preschool hadn’t even started yet, and I’d already been defeated by the only part of motherhood I’d ever thought I’d be good at.
I told myself that it was just one volunteer day. Real school would be different. But it wasn’t. This milestone I’d held out for turned out to be nothing like I thought it would—just like everything else about having kids. Our entrance into the school years was marked by tears and meltdowns. There was a potty accident the second week, an incident of “non-weather appropriate clothing” on a rainy day, and a conference in which it was suggested that I pick my daughter up after only an hour of school each day because she didn’t seem to be adjusting.
I saw my report card as a mother laid out before me, each column full of F’s and “Needs more effort” scrawled at the bottom. My daughter wasn’t failing; I was. If I had done things right (exactly which things, I’m not sure) she wouldn’t be having such a tough time.
It was just like those first weeks postpartum, when she wouldn’t latch and pumping felt like it was killing me, when her jaundice wouldn’t go away, when her head was a little too flat on one side, when I lost every sense of who I was. It felt like months before things turned around.
Then suddenly, they did: a nap that lasted longer than thirty minutes, a car ride where she didn’t scream, a flavor of baby food she seemed to enjoy. And just as suddenly, in the third quarter of the school year, our shroud of failure started to fade away. First there was an invitation to a birthday party, then coffee with another mom. Next came reports of making friends at school and a whole month of drop-offs without tears. Now my little girl excitedly asks, “Do I get to go to school today?” every morning. She tells stories about her friends and asks when she can see them next.
They are small victories, but they’re reminding me to hold my expectations for motherhood loosely, even now in these years that I dreamed would be easier.
So I’m not the school mom who loves volunteering, just like I wasn’t the mom who adored early days with a newborn. Maybe someday I’ll be the mom who can help her daughter navigate girl drama, or the mom who gets a kick out of snarky teenagers, or the mom who thinks it was all worth it because her grown kids still gather at her table when they run out of Ramen.
As for today, I’ll be the mom who doesn’t know what she’s doing but who’s enough for her kids anyway.
Guest post written by Ashley Brooks. Ashley Brooks is a work-at-home mama to three kids under four. She believes in the power of small stories, long books, and iced mochas. You can find her encouraging everyday creativity in others at the Chasing Creative podcast and www.ashleybrookswrites.com.
Photo by N'tima Preusser.