Boo Hoo Breakfast, Indeed
She woke up excited for her first day of school. The new dress-code approved jumper and colored polo shirt (hot pink, of course) had been carefully selected and the lunch box was packed and ready to go. She was all smiles as I handed her the “First Day of Second Grade” sign I had printed off at the last minute and stuck in a picture frame, and beamed at the camera as she posed on our front porch before we left for drop off. My daughter, Annie, felt like a “big kid” and told me so as we walked out the door, backpack on and headed for her third annual first day of elementary school.
Because I lost my mind a little this year and volunteered to be the President of her school’s PTA, we had to be at school early for, what would turn out to be a very ironic PTA-sponsored event, the Boo Hoo Breakfast for new Kindergarten parents. The minute we walked into the building, I could practically feel Annie’s anxiety begin. I asked if she wanted to go on upstairs to her classroom or help me set up for the breakfast, not knowing which would be better for her emotional state, and she chose helping me. As the minutes passed and I put mini muffins on trays and dished out cut up fruit, Annie stood completely still in the cafeteria, a look of uncertainty on her face. I knew what was happening – she was getting nervous. Right before my eyes, the excitement and confidence she had shown at home were draining away and in their place, fear, anxiety and dread were taking hold. The longer she waited with me, the worse it became, so by the time my replacement PTA member came for her shift to oversee the event, Annie was in a quiet panic.
I walked her to her classroom, hoping being back in the hallways she had frequented the two previous years would help her relax. As we walked in the door of her second grade class, I searched the room for the friendly faces I knew had to be in there, faces of kids who had been in class with her in prior years, hoping that might ease her stress. We found her seat and that’s when her panic became not-so-quiet. She clung to me like a toddler when I tried to say goodbye to her. She cried actual, big tears as I tried to explain to her that Mommy couldn’t stay, and she gripped my body with fierce strength as I tried to disengage. She hadn’t responded to a drop off like this since she was two years old and I was completely caught off guard. She didn’t care that there were other kids around. She didn’t care what they might think of her falling apart in front of them. She didn’t care about the impression she was making on her new teacher. It was clear that all she could think of in that moment was how much she did not want to stay there alone. She had worked herself up into such a state that peer pressure meant absolutely nothing to her. Her body language (all the clutching and flattening herself to my side) was clear – so what if she looked like a “baby,” so what if she wasn’t acting like the “big kid” she had pronounced herself to be half an hour early…quite frankly, she was blind to all of that.
This story is one I want to forget for two reasons: The first reason is the simple fact that it is so hard to watch your child in distress and know there is absolutely nothing you can do to help. Annie’s go-to-pieces on the first day of school was something only she could get herself through. I couldn’t stay in the classroom with her…not only did I have work to get to, but obviously public schools don’t generally allow parents to camp out in the classroom so their child can adjust a little easier. Working mom guilt aside, we have reached the point where I don’t get the choice anymore – legally, I have to make sure she gets an education. So staying with her was not an option, and neither was taking her back home. I knew she would be fine – more than fine, actually; I knew she would ultimately thrive in that very classroom – but she didn’t know it yet, and it was hard to walk away from her before she had figured that out. There are moments in parenting that break your heart – where the very fact that we aren’t supposed to be able to help makes us feel all the more helpless. And this was one of those moments.
But the other reason I want to forget this story? Well, my response to all of this drama and panic and fear was, um, less than perfect. I was taken off guard by Annie’s sudden negative reaction to the whole drop off situation and, in my own confusion, panic and self-consciousness, I opted to take the tough love approach in an effort to minimize the damage. It was one of those parenting moments that should really be in a handbook somewhere, but I didn’t have the guide book handy and so I had to make a split-second decision on how to react. And I sort of think I made the wrong decision. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t respond with love. I responded with frustration. I responded with embarrassment on her behalf (and mine). I responded with a dismissive “What is going on with you? You don’t do things like this.” And all of that only added to her dismay, a fact of which I was well aware. Because if there is one thing I know about my child, it is that she is devastated by the prospect of disappointing someone…and instead of being sensitive to that, I basically manipulated that knowledge in the hopes that it would be the puzzle piece that helped her flip the switch on her anxiety over her new school year.
To say that I am not proud of my reaction would be an understatement. I felt ashamed of my response before I even took my last step out of the classroom that morning. And as I walked back downstairs to the school cafeteria to clean up the remnants of the Boo Hoo Breakfast (see how uncanny that was now?), I had tears of my own in my eyes. Parenting is hard, folks. And, as it turns out, that day has stood out in my memory far larger than it does in Annie’s. After a couple of rough mornings (although none as rough as the first, thank goodness), Annie adjusted beautifully to second grade. And I can say with certainty that those first 90 seconds of her school year, the ones I can play back in my head at a moment’s notice whenever I feel like I screwed up again, are entirely forgotten by her. Because as hard as parenting can be, and as flawed a mother as I am to my daughter, my kid doesn’t hold a grudge. She doesn’t ask me why I respond with impatience instead of kindness sometimes. She doesn’t point out that I can bring my own baggage to my parenting and that doing so can be pretty unfair. She doesn’t do any of that – she didn’t do any of that in the first day of school debacle. She just moved on. She forgot about it and replaced that memory with happier mornings at school. She let it go.
And maybe I should follow her lead and let that day go from my head too.
Sarah Noble is the mother of an amazing and sensitive 7-year-old, Annie. She and her husband, David, raise their “one and done” daughter in Lexington, Kentucky, where Sarah works full-time as a civil litigation attorney.
Outside the courtroom, Sarah loves reading psychological thrillers (when she can keep her eyes open), cooking (when she remembers to do the grocery shopping), running (when she isn’t injured), and, most of all, laughing with her family. You can follow her on Instagram at @senoble