At some point before my oldest child’s second birthday, I had a conversation with another weary mom that ended with this punchline: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
The full meaning of this saying struck me this week, as we prepared to send Julia to full-day kindergarten at our local elementary school. Since becoming a parent a little over five years ago, I’ve experienced plenty of days when the hours seemed to drag by, each minute of the dreary afternoon reverberating in my bones. Days when I didn’t enjoy motherhood for more than a fleeting moment before the next crisis erupted, when it was only lunchtime and I wished desperately for the clock to strike 5 PM, or even better, 8 PM, because that meant bedtime.
Yet five years can also gallop by in a flash, leaving you blinking in the dust and wondering what just happened. Suddenly I’m sitting at kindergarten curriculum night in a room full of other parents, listening to the literary specialist talk about print concepts and phonemic awareness, and how our children – “yes, your little babies, who were probably still wearing diapers just two years ago” – would soon be reading and writing at a level once reserved for second graders.
I look around and in the sea of faces, I recognize two other moms from my daughter’s preschool. We’re not close, but our kids have played together on occasion. As each teacher presents to us, I take messy notes with a dull crayon that was stashed in the bottom of my purse; all of my regular pens seem to be missing in action. I feel off-kilter, unprepared to absorb the information, the weight of this milestone that my daughter is approaching.
The next day is the school’s “Meet the Teacher” event. After navigating the crammed parking lot with both of my daughters in tow, we join the throng of other families lining up at the school entrance. We find Julia’s classroom, and I work my way over to the small crowd of parents who are sifting through Target bags and dropping glue sticks, dry erase markers and Kleenex into the appropriately labelled buckets. I point out some baby doll toys to my younger daughter Lily, hoping she will be enticed to play with them for at least a few minutes.
I realize I’ve brought the wrong nap mat. It doesn’t match the others, which are red and blue and neatly stacked on a nearby table. Suddenly Lily tries to make a break for it and runs back toward the hallway. “No, Lily!” Julia shrieks and practically tackles her sister to prevent her from escaping. I steer the girls toward the back of the classroom, directing them to some books, and I manage to finish sorting our supplies.
My nerves are raw with the effort of trying to negotiate this new environment smoothly, and I hope my daughters don’t pick up on my stress. The classroom feels too warm, cramped with excited parents who all seem to know each other and the teacher already. As the teacher finishes meeting another student, I bring Julia over to introduce herself, and she says a shy hello. I feel a rush of pride and want to say, “Look, see, here she is!! My daughter, my superstar! Can’t you just tell from the way she said ‘hello’ that she is really smart and creative??”
In the next moment, my daughter derails any hope of a pristine first impression when she begins to argue with her little sister over whose turn it is to sit on the crayon stool a few feet away. I can almost see it happening in slow motion as Julia pushes Lily off the stool in the swift, ruthless motion of an older sibling asserting her will. Lily’s head hits the floor and she wails, her cries piercing the stuffy air, as the teacher turns away. After an apology and a hug, the conflict is over as quickly as it started, and I gather my kids and what remains of my composure and head back to the car.
On Labor Day, the day before school starts, we spend time as a family, lingering over breakfast, letting the kids goof around in the kitchen and indulging Julia’s request to shop for some last-minute new school clothes. We spin through Kohl’s, picking out pretty skirts in sparkly pink and purple, a new pair of sneakers for Lily and a belted black and white dress for Julia. After everyone tries on their new outfits, we take the girls to the park, then retreat from the humid weather with Frozen and popsicles back at home.
All day, there is a sadness I can’t shake. Even my usual iced mocha, which normally has my endorphins buzzing by the first sip, tastes flat. Five years passed in the blink of an eye, and was I grateful for that time, when every second of my daughter’s day was inextricably linked with mine? There were no limits on what we could do or how much time we could spend together, a gift I often took for granted. Did I teach her right, give her enough tools and knowledge to be resilient and self-sufficient, from opening her own juice box to knowing what to do if she gets on the wrong bus home? How will I cope with the fact that, from 8 AM to 4 PM every week day, a piece of me will be out in the world, out of sight and completely out of my control?
The days and months leading up to kindergarten seemed at times to be endless. But now we’ve arrived, and now it’s time. Tomorrow I will walk my daughter to the bus and give her a hug and kiss. I will wave and smile as a piece of my heart floats away on a carefree late summer breeze, ready to find its own place in a new world, yet ever connected to me by the invisible thread of love.