“Mommmmmmmieeeeeeeee!” Simon wailed, his red face popping over the preschool fence as his teacher held him up to wave goodbye. It felt like I was living in a cliché: “Your child’s first day of school.” A sob built up in my chest after I rounded the corner, a release of sorrow combined with a guilty feeling of relief. I waited until I could no longer hear my “baby,” now almost three, crying. I peeked around the corner and saw him tentatively approaching another child on the playground. Now he was fine? So fast? Did I mean anything to him? Torn was too small a word to describe the depth of what I was feeling. How could I leave him on the other side of that fence?
This separation had been a long time coming. When Simon was almost two, we had moved to a house in Berkeley, so we waited a year before starting him in preschool to smooth out the transition. My recovery from depression had reached a plateau — I was in therapy and just working on living, seeing what it was like to live outside of crisis mode. The move, the act of buying a house, was very exciting for us. A chance to put down roots.
But leaving him at school for the first time today, I felt rootless. Damaged. I couldn’t get that word out of my mind. Despite his outwardly normal first preschool experience, I was sure the accident and my depression had damaged him somehow. What if he couldn’t attach properly to the teachers or other children? What if I hadn’t given him enough? The sneaking suspicion that I was the one who was damaged, and therefore had damaged him somehow, was always there, even when I was faced with a thriving, bright, verbal little boy, a fluff of thick, blond curls topping his head. His wail at my leaving him today still echoed the accident and the pain I suffered whenever he cried — the sleepless nights, the damage I inflicted on myself.
I had been a preschool teacher myself, in the years before Simon was born. I had seen many children through their first days of school. The good side of this was that I knew he was in caring hands. I had researched Simon’s preschool and had spent a lot of time with the teachers before choosing to enroll Simon. They were excellent, experienced, the real deal. I had been around preschools long enough to know the difference between perfectly nice folks waiting for a better job and dedicated teachers.
The bad side of being an experienced preschool teacher, for me, was that I knew how to fake it. I made myself look like I was just a normal mother, dealing with normal, average separating issues. I kept it all inside. At least, I thought I did. As I was leaving the classroom on that first day, Mark, the head teacher, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Really, he’s going to be fine.” He looked me in the eye. Did he know how upset I really was? Could he somehow sense my apprehension at leaving Simon with strangers, just like I had to do in the hospital after his accident? Could he see that I wasn’t at all fine, that in the span of about five minutes, I had managed to feel an entire range of emotions, all without saying a word?
I answered him, “Oh, I know, but you know how it is, he’s my first!” I smiled brightly, maybe a bit too brightly, and walked out. Left him with perfectly capable, loving strangers.
At some level, I knew Simon would be all right, would flourish even, when given the experience of preschool; that he would gain confidence in knowing that he could be separate from me for a bit and I would come back. And preschool was good for Simon — and for me. Only later did I realize how much the experience helped me to recover from my depression. The everyday acts of researching schools, visiting classrooms, and meeting teachers — these active tasks brought me outside myself, and I enjoyed moving my focus away from my inner struggle. I could do things for my family, for me. And, as Simon rapidly adjusted to his new environment, I slowly gained confidence in learning to separate from him. My motherhood matured as he matured, if not exactly at the same rate. That must happen at some level for most parents, I guess, but when you’ve had post-partum depression, these milestones (first babysitter, first school experience, first overnight away from Mom) can become magnified, taking on a symbolic importance inappropriate to the occasion.
As the first days of preschool went by, I learned that I could detach myself from him and still be a good mother. In the dramatic moments, like that first day, or the first time he came home with an injury (again, an accident I couldn’t control), I still felt the guilt, questioned my “good mother” credentials. I wondered if his teachers could see through me.
The day of his first preschool injury, I arrived at school to pick him up. He was on the slide with some other children, his back to me. I slipped into the classroom and went to his cubby to retrieve his backpack and lunchbox. There was a form taped to the cubby, titled “Accident Report.” The word “Accident” was in bright red letters. In it, Simon’s teacher, Arden, explained that Simon had knocked his head on the corner of a bookshelf while running to line up to go outside. The report stated that Simon had a pretty visible scratch above his right eye that might turn into a bruise. He had cried a bit, it read, but had recovered and played happily the rest of the day.
I furiously fought the urge to sprint out to the playground and sweep him up into my arms. I walked outside, measuring my steps, making sure my pace was normal. I could see he was fine, and I didn’t want to scare him or have him (or his teachers) think I was too worried. He saw me and ran over, giving me a hug. I squeezed him, but not too hard, and gave him a big fat kiss, like always. Then I pulled back to get a look at his forehead. It was an angry scratch, edged in the beginning of a bruise.
“Arden said you hurt your head. Are you okay?”
He answered, “Oh. I cried a lot.”
My stomach tightened. I put the palm of my hand on his smooth cheek and was quiet for a moment. Arden joined us. “It looks a lot worse than it is,” she said. I replied, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine. There’s a first time for everything, I guess!”
I wondered, was I too flip? Did she think I didn’t care about him? Or, conversely, did she see my hands shaking? Did she see through me? Did his teachers think I was a good mother? In moments like that one, I had my doubts.
But mostly, I learned — in fits and starts — that healthy separation was okay. Simon did great in preschool. The more I left him on the other side of the preschool fence, the easier it got. For him. For me, it took a little longer to adjust. For the first few weeks, I filled up my time with tasks, the kind that pile up for all of us as we try to keep our households in order. I berated myself for being “just a housewife,” using the same sexist language on myself that I had always disdained in others. The time was not my own, not intellectually productive. Really, I was pining for Simon. I spent the time waiting for my reason for existence to arrive home. Perhaps I needed to separate from him as much as he needed to separate from me. I just had no idea what kinds of practical steps I could take to make that happen. The best I could do was to try and be open to the idea.