It’s my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. While the other parents assembled in this tiny classroom are struggling to cover their tears, I’m fighting to hide my glee.
The past five years — watching that squirming, screaming little squid blossom into a fully formed human — have been an amazing ride. But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been eagerly awaiting this day and this new chapter, this chance watch her slowly gain independence as I greedily take back some of my own.
No longer must I fake the stomach flu just to get a precious few minutes in the bathroom alone. No more will I have to argue with the husband over who gets to take a break from parenting long enough to walk the dog (“It’s my turn! Give me that leash!”) or go grocery shopping (“You’re darn right I’m going to the store right now. We’re out of Herbes de Provence!”). Deep down in my soul lives a tiny Mel Gibson, his weird face covered in blue, his cries of “FREEEEEDOOOOM!” echoing through my head.
Meanwhile, though he’s trying hard not to show it, the husband is something of a wreck. He’s hovering over the kid, cycling through his Kindergarten Preparedness Checklist again: “Do you have your hat? Do you need to pee? Where’s your hand sanitizer?”
Every instinct is telling me: “LEAVE! FLEE! YOU’VE GOT SIX HOURS OF FREEDOM AND TIME’S A-WASTING!” Yet I cool my jets and dig into my purse, where I find an old napkin balled up at the bottom; I hold it at the ready to dry the kid’s tears. But she fakes us out with a quick “Buh-bye!” and disappears into a tiny pretend kitchen.
Having fulfilled my duty, I make my way through the sea of still-clinging parents, giving the teacher a quick wink-nod combo, as if to say, “Can you believe these poor saps?” Then I exit the classroom and head to the empty playground, where I sit on a slide and revel in the moment.
I’ve always thought of the job of being a parent as something between a Sherpa and a party host; my role is to guide her (Follow me up the mountain/to the hors d’oeuvres table), point out the sights (Look, an eagle!/the dance floor!), warn of the dangers (Beware, that ledge/that guy is slippery), and show her a good time (while not letting her fall off the mountain/for the dude who spiked the punch).
And though this moment represents just how far we’ve come, as I close my eyes and lie back against the sun-warmed and vaguely-smelling-of-pee slide, my mind wanders along the path of other “firsts” that lie ahead:
Today she will make a best friend, a sweet girl her age who is polite and shy . . . and then one day she’ll have her first best-friend breakup, with that same girl, who I’ve always secretly hated and thought was a sneaky and manipulative little creep.
Later on will come middle school, makeup, and puberty — though not necessarily in that order — and the first time she screams “IHATEYOURGUTS!” and really, truly means it.
Then will come her prom and her first kiss at the front door, while I flick the patio lights on and off, yelling, “GET IN THE HOUSE!!!” which will lead to her screaming “IHATEYOURGUTS!” for thesecond (and far from last) time.
Eventually, we’ll meet her first “serious” boyfriend. I’ll think he’s wonderful and will knit him four ski sweaters, only to be brokenhearted when they have a friendly breakup two weeks later.
Somewhere around boyfriend Number 15, one will stick and, after a respectable amount of time, we’ll throw them a big wedding at some exotic destination — like Hawaii, or maybe Jupiter, especially if they’re offering group discounts.
Now we’re with the daughter and the son-in-law and the grandchildren: two boys and one little girl who call us “Paw-Paw” and “Mee-Maw.” They’ll grow to share just enough of our good qualities and none of the bad ones, though the granddaughter will test her mom in ways that will amuse me to no end.
And then one day I’ll awaken to see their faces — all of them — at my bedside, looking down at me with love, telling me, “Go to the light, Grandma . . . Go to the light!”
And as their soft, loving voices echo in my ears, I close my eyes and rise into that big bright light, and all sound fades away and I become one with the cosmos and am filled with a sense of wonder and love and fulfillment and so many beautiful feelings, and I am just a vapor now or maybe a liquid or a cosmic plasma, I’m not sure exactly what happens at that altitude . . .
And then the fantasy melts away, and I am back on the playground. My eyes are wide open, staring at the bright-blue sky and gushing like the falls of Niagara.
I am not ready for the light.
I am not ready for this day.
I am not ready for her to grow up and out and away from me.
Now I’m full-on ugly crying. My vision is blurry, my face hot with tears. I wipe them away, but no matter how hard I rub, one of my eyes won’t clear. I’m blind . . . Dear God, I’ve cried so hard I’ve broken my eye . . . MY EYE!!
A hand grabs my shoulder — it’s the husband. He holds me as I sob, and he pats my leg, which is where he finds the contact lens that I’ve cried out and is now stuck to the front of my jeans.
Turns out I’m not blind. I’m just another weepy parent.
I grab the balled-up napkin from the bottom of my purse and dry my face. My husband gives me a hug and a smile and then gently informs me that I have a candy wrapper stuck to my cheek.
On the way home, we walk past our daughter’s new classroom. I peek through the window and see her sitting on the carpet, listening as her teacher leads them through the “Good Morning” song.
The child’s face is so vulnerable and eager, her expression one of total openness. Then her eyes shift as she notices me there. She gives me a wave and a nervous smile. It’s then that I remember that she’s still got a ways to go. And, apparently, so do I.
Excerpted from How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane: And Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source by Johanna Stein; available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014
Credit: Illustration by Peter Oumanski