December has been a month of big decisions for us. We’ve decided to start sending Tuna to “preschool”.
I say “preschool” because it’s very much “pre” and very little “school”. I mean, let’s be honest, at this age, you’re essentially just putting your kid in an institution where they can finger paint without abandon, run around the world’s most well child-proofed playground, engage in “sensory” play by baking organic wholewheat pizzas and what not, and you don’t have to clean any of it up or break a sweat.
Now that I’m well and truly past the 8-month-pregnant mark, the appeal of this is obvious. Going to the grocery store, or even the playground downstairs, has become a near-insurmountable physical feat. I just can’t anymore. It’s so hot. The mosquitos love my baby-making-hormone-laden blood. People that measure less than a metre in height require a lot of bending over and squatting, which, when you have what feels like a supersized bowling ball nestled in your midsection, isn’t comfortable.
I had always thought that we wouldn’t even consider starting Tuna at preschool until much later. New parenthood involves a lot of fanatic absolutes backed by zero experience. It has for me, anyway. So we thought about our circumstances right now, and about Tuna’s particular personality, and decided it was worth a shot. If you know Tuna, you’ll know that she’s very social, quite independent, and isn’t afraid to make her wishes clearly known.
Her first day was last week. It was totally fine, largely due to the fact that her teachers recommended I sit in for the whole 3 or so hours so that she could become familiar with the new environment and people while I was within reach. I lurked in the corner most of the time and just observed her, because I wanted to see how she interacted when I wasn’t a primary instigator of the activity at hand. She was her usual Tuna self and loved every minute of it. Every now and then she’d crane her neck to see where I was and say “hiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” and then resume what she was doing. It was almost like she was checking on me to make sure I was okay.
Since the first day had gone so well, her teacher suggested to me that on the following day, I hang around for the first half of the morning and then try to leave.
I prepared myself, mentally, emotionally and physically for this because I knew its potential to be a transition marked by a lot of tears, anxiety and wanting to just go home. The physical preparation involved no mascara on my lower lashes to avoid raccoon eyes and extra packets of tissues, in case I should shed a graceful tear or two.
When the time came, I explained to Tuna that I was leaving to go get a coffee downstairs for a little while, and that I’d be back soon to pick her up. I did the whole, squat down to her level, hold her hands, speak in soothing, comforting tones, et cetera. I was mildly offended when she looked at me for a second, shook her hands free of my loving grasp and ran off to the music room because they were getting the drums out and frankly, she didn’t have time for my soppy emotional moment.
Fine. You know what, this is just fine. Good for you, Tuna. We’ll see how you react when I come back to pick you up. No no, Mama knows. You’ll miss me when I’m gone. I was proud of myself for not having any kind of emotional breakdown either. So I shimmied my way down to the Starbucks downstairs, with only a small handbag in tow (this is a very exciting thing when you’ve been carrying a gigantic diaper bag/back pack for the past two years) and ate my feelings in the form of a below-par raspberry cheesecake. The tears stayed at bay.
I went back about an hour and a half later to pick her up (okay, I’ll be honest, it was an hour and a quarter; I missed her too much). There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, awaiting the sweet, warm, soft little embrace of a toddler that has been anxiously anticipating my return.
Hiiiii baby! I held out my outstretched arms to her. She eyed me up with the ultimate Tuna poker face.
Oh. It’s you. Her face seemed to say. A glimmer of a half-smile flickered across her face.
Shall we go home now, sweetie? Do you want to go on the bus with Mama? I asked her, knowingly expecting her excited response of “go onna bus!” because I know how much she loves the bus, and more importantly, how much she loves the woman that gave her life.
No! No! Off she ran. In the opposite direction. Back to the music area to stare adoringly at her teacher. She didn’t want to leave.
I looked at the teacher sheepishly, all like, geez, toddlers, huh? I then looked squarely at my ultra-detached child. We need to go home now and say goodbye to your teachers, I tried to persuade her.
No! No! She giggled and ran further away from me.
With some coaxing from her teacher, and a solemn promise that she would be back the following week, we managed to get the child to leave the premises. With me, too, which was a bonus.
I took it on the chin. Hey, look, I’m actually okay with this. All that guilt that has been flooding my head and heart about putting you in this perfect little play-haven filled with wooden toys and recycled materials has dissipated somewhat. You’re ready. This is awesome. Think of all the things I can do for three mornings a week for the next three or so weeks until I have a newborn permanently attached to me again!
When A got home, I boasted to him about how well she had coped. How she had spent over an entire hour with new people, new surroundings and didn’t flinch. She loved it. She was happy.
He looked at me with a teasing smirk and said, “Don’t worry. Soon there’ll be another one that needs you all the time.”
Oh please. I brushed it off. That is so not what this is about. But thanks for the sentiment, husband dearest.
Today was Day 3. The big one. The one where I drop her off, give her a kiss, say goodbye and leave her in the care of someone who is essentially a stranger for 3 hours. Since Days 1 and 2 had gone so beautifully, I was pretty relaxed about it all. Mascara? You bet. Tissues? No need. We’re totally in the swing of this preschool thing now, guys.
Unfortunately, we had a rough start to the morning. Tuna wasn’t interested in breakfast. We were late for the bus. En route, she practiced her new favourite trick which is to take a big gulp of water out of her water bottle and then let it trickle slowly out of her mouth, thereby saturating her perfectly laundered uniform before we had even arrived (uniform? REALLY? I mean, how adorable, but REALLY?). My morning was particularly ruined by the infuriatingly inefficient Subway “sandwich artist” who took a full eight minutes to put together a very basic ham and cheese sandwich so that I could satisfy the innate desire all mothers have to see some semblance of protein go into their children before they leave them in the care of someone not endowed their mama-telepathy.
And of course, Tuna decided she didn’t want that sandwich, in any event.
We arrived at the school, did the usual sign in drill; I’m already stressed and on the brink of bawling my eyes out because it’s been one of those too-hard mornings. Tuna then sees one of her favourite teachers and runs to her, holds her hand, turns to me and, with great conviction and delight, says, “BYE BYE!”
Like, move, woman. Get on out of here. Why are you even still here? I’ve got my crew. We’re going up to the trampoline now and there’s really no place for a woman of your size anywhere near that thing. So go on now, get yourself a nice caramel-laced beverage at Starbucks. I’ll see you at noon. Buh-bye now.
I was so unsettled. I didn’t see this coming, at all. Honestly speaking, I kinda wanted to stay a little longer! Maybe walk her up to the playground with the rest of the kids? Watch her play a little longer? Maybe she’d be so upset that I’d have to stay the whole three hours again? Maybe? I mean look, if that’s what she needs, then okay!
Nope. I awkwardly stepped outside to get my bag and put my shoes on, sort of waiting for Tuna to change her mind and start fussing for me. She was busily preoccupied with her friends while they all put their shoes on. I walked a little bit further away, but still in view. She spots me. We lock eyes. I eagerly, and a little smugly, wait for her sweet request of “Mama, hug?” which is instead replaced with “No! No! Bye bye!”
SERIOUSLY, KID? Can’t you just fake it a little bit? For my sake? So I sucked it up and officially left. And by that I mean, I walked down to the escalator 10 metres away and hid behind it while I stared at her for the next 5 minutes as the teachers organised all the kids to head up to the playground.
She. Was. Fine.
And cue the expected tears. The anxiety. The just wanting to go home. But the unexpected part? All of those things, were entirely on my part. I bawled like a two-year-old. I felt like I was suffocating. I wanted to run back, pick my perfect little girl up, bundle her up in my arms and take her home.
I’m not ready for this. This is not how this was supposed to go.
Luckily, one of my close mama friends had just arrived and dropped off her son, so she gave me a hug and told me to let it all out and that if I needed to cry for a month, that was okay. I blew my nose in the complimentary sandpaper Subway napkin. Mascara streaked my face as the tears of separation anxiety flowed. I didn’t think this was going to be so hard.
I eventually pulled myself together. I went down to Starbucks again to be on standby in case the school called me to inform me of Tuna finally realising I was truly not there and wanting to go back into the womb. I’ve been here almost two hours now and no such call has been received.
I had all these worries before setting Tuna off on this huge new experience. What if she needed something, and the teachers didn’t understand her? How will they know if she’s hungry? If she needs a hug? What if she asks for “coco” and they don’t understand that for her, “coco” is water? What if she tries to tell them one of her stories, which I normally would understand as I’m now fluent in Tuna-speak, and they don’t know what she’s saying?
I never fully understood why other mothers who have gone through this found it so difficult. Until now. I feel like I’ve left a piece of me behind, and I miss her. I’m going to see her in an hour and a half, and she’ll probably be reluctant to come home with me again, but I miss her. There will probably be some irrational negotiation between us at some stage this afternoon that’ll drive me nuts, but I miss her.
I want to call my own parents and tell them: I get it now. I get it. I understand what you meant when you said that sometimes, as a parent, you still want to feel needed. I know she’s not even 2 yet, and obviously she still “needs” me in a multitude of ways, but this huge new leap of independence, and in particular her readiness to embrace it so quickly, has caught me off-guard. It’s bittersweet: part of me is happy and proud that she has taken to all of this so well, but the other part of me is aching. Aching for my dependent little baby who needs me for everything.
I wonder what she’s doing right now. Is she chuckling at something one of her friends did and remarking how “twunny” (funny) it is? Is she finally snacking away on that ham and cheese sandwich I bought her this morning? Is she drinking her milk out of the cup I washed for her this morning? Has she thought about me? Has she wondered where I am? Does she miss me? Does she need me? Is she wondering if I’m ever coming back?
This parenting thing is hard. And some of the hardest parts of it, I’ve found, are actually very much about you, the parent, and very minimally about the child. Feeling like you want to hold on to their baby-ness for as long as possible, but knowing that you need them to experience life for themselves.
Just as well I have a highly needy newborn on the cards in a few weeks time.