O started kindergarten last week. I am trying to write about it here, capture the day, but it’s all a blur. It was also his sixth birthday, and he started kindergarten, at a new school. All big things, all carrying their own weight of emotion and fault lines, but yet I didn’t see it coming. Writing it down- 6, kindergarten, new school- it seems obvious. But like most things, I was caught up in the mundane- what time do we wake him up, should we open presents before school or after, what time did I need to leave for carpool, what is the best way there, how do I navigate the new school, what time should I make his birthday dinner reservations for?
I don’t remember specifics of the morning. It went smoothly- he pulled on his uniform, a crisp white polo shirt, never worn, gently imprinted with a white crest of his new school, a school where he will most likely spend the next thirteen years. Khaki shorts and a belt. His hair is still shocking blond, even though we cut most of the long pool-stained hair off last week. It is short on the sides, with a longer swoop in the front. He looks young and older at the same time, he looks goofy and yet so handsome. He opened one present, a SWAT backpack from his godfather in California, an actual police detective. He slung the backpack on his back, hopped out front and willingly posed for pictures. I don’t remember being so in the moment, or so aware of how mature he looked. I only remember being stressed about time, about being angry that Ives was being so uncooperative. My neighbor came out to see O, and rightly told me to relax.
The rest of the morning went smoothly- picked up our carpool mate, made it to school without any traffic or issue, navigated the carpool line. We were in line and I saw a parking spot. We’d been advised that parking would be difficult and we could walk our kids in if we wanted, but it wasn’t necessary. I asked O if he wanted me to park and walk them in. No, he said, I got this. And his carpool mate said no way, moms don’t go in. I smiled, proud of my kid that is always up for anything, that is so independent and enthusiastic.
I pull up, the doors open, he jumps out, the door slams, and I drive off. As I heard the door slam, I felt a rushing weight rise up in me, like a magnet seeking its mate. I drive forward, though every molecule was pulling me back. I know he doesn’t need me, which is why I began crying. He really doesn’t need me. And while that makes me so happy, as that is the way he should be, it makes me so sad, because I didn’t see it coming. I hear Ivy’s little voice from behind me: Mom, are you cwying? Are you sad?
Yes, baby, I’m a little sad.
Because O is my baby too and he’s going to school and it makes me a little sad to see him grow up.
That’s silly, Mama, O is not a baby. I’m a baby. And I am not growing up. It’s too picy (spicy).
Yes, but you’re both my kids and will always sort of be my babies.
Oh. Are you sad?
I’m happy and sad.
Oh mama, that’s silly. It’s ok, I still here.
I hadn’t noticed, not really, how much had changed with him. Five seemed so big to me, six just seems impossible. Six is a big kid. Six makes me a different kind of mother, in a different stage. I have done no prep work for this. Babies, I feel like I get. I read books, and had online groups, and talked to friends, and lived through it twice. I knew what milestones were coming up, knew (sort of) what to expect. But six. I just don’t know. Six is different for every kid. Elementary school starts with all these potential problems- school work and bullying and being left out and things that I used to help navigate for him at play dates. Now it’s kind of out of my hands. I can counsel him, I can listen, I can step in, but I can’t really do much but let him walk through it. It’s his life, his path, his beginning.
I hadn’t noticed because in many ways he’s still little. He still creeps into our bed every single night. He still lights up when he sees his dad. He still whines and I still fight with him about eating. He still can’t be alone and he still wants us to read books to him at night and give him a bath and we are still his favorite people (mostly).
But there are other things, warning signs, that I hadn’t picked up on. He no longer always says “I love you infinity infinity twenty” when leaving or saying good night. He lets Ivy do that now, because it’s babyish. He asked me to take down a picture of him and Ivy kissing that is on our fridge because it is private, and embarrassing. He protects Ivy, tells me that they are working it out when I hear them fighting. He gives her the last cookie. He tries to use bad words and play video games. He no longer really plays with his cars. He left his dog dog in California, and while there were many tears about it, the tears were about leaving dog dog behind and alone, not because he needs him to sleep anymore. These are small, yes, but still small earthquakes that are setting the stage for bigger breaks.
And then he came home from his first day. And my little soldier, who is always happy and always excited and always positive, melted down. It started with a quaver in his voice about his teacher. Then a few what ifs intensified (what if I get kicked out of school? what if I have to go to the principal? what if kindergarten is too hard?). And then he lay in my lap, and cried and cried and cried. I held him and tried to reassure him. I was unprepared for this, too. Of course he was anxious and overwhelmed. Besides being exhausted from the weekend birthday festivities and waking up early, this was a new school. He had been at the same preschool since he was three, with the same kids. Now he was somewhere where he didn’t really know anyone. Most parents would be worried. Not me, because O is usually so unflappable. He is the kid that walks into camp alone and leaves with three new best friends. He makes friends walking down the street, at the airport. But still, he’s a little guy and it’s all new. I should have been prepared, I should have seen it coming.
I held him and we talked about it. I think I said the right things. By the time his dad came home, he was in great spirits and back to everything was great. The second day was better than the first, and the third day was even better.
What I am realizing this week is that we are all just beginners. Always beginning again, always having to find new ways of navigating, always feeling a little behind. He is beginning kindergarten, but I am beginning again too, as a different kind of mother, different kind of person. We are both just feeling our way through it. And acknowledging that I am a beginner somehow makes me feel better, reminds me that it’s okay I don’t have it all figured out. I’m still beginning, always starting over- as a mother, as a writer, as a daughter, as a wife. Running, writing, yoga, meditating, mothering, lawyering- it’s all a practice, and it all requires starting from the beginning, every day. There is no finish line, not one that I am interested in anyways.
Later that night he crawled into our bed much later than normal and I found myself waking periodically, wondering if he was okay, if I should go check on him. I didn’t, as we have been trying to get him to stay in his bed. But when I heard him cry out for me, I felt relief. I ran upstairs and he was huddled in his bed, the sheet wrapped around his head like a mummy. What is it? I asked. I’m scared, he said, and I couldn’t see you. I’m right here, I said, and picked him up. I carried him downstairs, his legs now dangling past my knees. He curled up between us, his bony knees finding their usual place in my back, and began twitching, which is how he falls asleep. This normally drives me crazy and I move over, but that night I stayed where I was. He held my hand, his little hand as light and insubstantial as a butterfly. My husband reached over and held my other hand, and we all were quiet in the dark. I stayed awake, listening to the night, knowing that this too will soon be a story of his childhood that we will tell, another thing that he leaves behind as he grows up.