It's been five years since I wrote this. To all the moms saying goodbye to first-graders and college freshman in particular--here's to you!
My youngest started first grade today and all week long everyone I run into says, “What will you do with your free time now?” A lot of people ask this in jest, knowing full well there isn’t much you can do with the few hours when all the kids are out of the house at once. Others ask in earnest knowing that a world of possibilities has just opened up.
I have some ideas. I’m going to start exercising again. I’m going to write more. I’m going to finish my novel. Some of my friends will go back to work with the help of sitters and nannies. Others will fill up the time doing more around the house, taking part-time jobs, or volunteering even more of their time to the schools. It is strange but as a stay-at-home mom if you do your job really well you are rewarded by having your job taken away from you little by little. Today I was demoted to part-time. It’s not a huge chunk of time; 9:00 to 2:30 due to staggered start times among my three children, but nevertheless it’s a much bigger chunk of time than I’ve had in eleven years.
It’s not a total shock of course. The free-time comes quite gradually really, from the crazed frenzied days of breast-feeding and diaper-changing to the slightly less frantic days of potty-training and pre-school schedules to the relative calm of kindergarten and early elementary days. But some parts of it are not so gradual. Like today, the first day of school. It’s a wrenching change in my life. My youngest is the best of my three children at expressing herself. This makes parenting her sometimes easier and sometimes much more challenging. Last night, she sat in my lap as I read “The Kissing Hand” and as I struggled to get through that tear-jerker she interrupted me to say, “Mama, I am not ready for first grade.” “What do you mean?” I asked prepared to give her a pep-talk, to remind her that her best friend is in her class, she has the same bus route as last year, and she can already read chapter books. “I’m not ready to be away from you for so many hours,” she said simply. This stopped me dead in my tracks because the truth is I’m not really ready to be away from her for so many hours either. I mean maybe more than the 2 ½ hours of a kindergarten day but I really don’t need her to be gone from me more than seven hours which is what it turns out to be with the bus ride to and from school. Can’t they have a four hour day in first grade while we all adjust? My eyes filled with tears but I turned my head so she could not see. I forced a cheerful answer, “But honey, you were gone that many hours just yesterday with Margaret when you went to her house and then to the movies and you didn’t mind that.” “But I can’t be away from you that many hours every day,” she countered.
Now I began to cry in earnest, thankful that children seldom look their moms in the eye and as I sat with her in my lap trying to compose myself and most unhelpfully I remembered a Dave Barry column in which he drives his son Rob to Kindergarten for the first time and as they sit in the car outside the school, saying goodbye, Rob asks, “Daddy, how long do I have to do this?” and he can’t bring himself to answer, but he thinks, “Forever and ever.” I remember crying when I read that column and I didn’t even have children then. I shook my head trying to get the image of Rob and Dave Barry out of my head and to distract myself I tried to figure out how old Rob must be now. He’s probably in college or older, and not nearly as close to his father as he was when he was five. That was no help so I lifted Lilly off my lap and told her I’d be right back. I went into the bathroom and closed the door and sobbed into a bathroom towel. I was thinking of all the other mothers in my town, in my state, and probably in the world doing the same thing; crying into a bathroom towel because who else can you cry to? If only we had some acceptable way to share our collective grief maybe it would help but parenthood demands we act cheerful and even relieved when our little ones begin to leave the nest. For the most part we are relieved. But we are grieving too.
So please remember that when you see us looking a little dazed at the bus stop in the morning or a little anxious for the bus in the afternoon. Do not be deceived by our breezy answers to your question, “What will you do with your day now that the kids are all in school?” Because we’re not really sure ourselves. Oh we have lots of ideas; but we are afraid that any them will pale in comparison to the wondrous job we are leaving behind, the privilege of caring for a little one 24/7.