Our four girls beamed, eyes squinting in the evening sun. They stood behind a cardboard cutout painted with the name of their school. I took a moment’s pause before taking their picture, slightly startled by the growing women staring back at me. While their bodies might start to hint at an adult form, their minds reveal daily that we are still very much in the thick of childhood. After nine years at our beloved preschool, this fall, the youngest of our daughters will move onto kindergarten.
I posted the picture, along with other gems from the preschool art show, to social media that evening. Most comments were those of praise, noting the rapid passage of time from those outside our household, looking in. The first comment, from a treasured friend, stuck out in my mind during the weeks to follow: “How much did you cry?” followed by the wink emoji.
This friend has been my confidant since we met on the playground, bellies bulging, with only four external children at the time (today, there are seven who follow us around). We are strikingly similar in many aspects of our motherhood, yet, on occasion, so different. She knows my personality well; that I will fall off a treadmill, choking back tears as I watch Gilmore Girls, but when it comes to my girls growing up and moving on, I’m all smiles and celebrations, without a hint of maudlin sentimentality.
I have to ask myself: Is this a typical dichotomy of emotion? Am I missing some mother gene because I don’t weep as graduations pass? Am I going to look back, years from now, feeling like I missed out in some fashion?
And the thought that really catches my breath is: will my daughters be negatively affected by my lack of sentimentality?
Years earlier, the baby carrier dug into my expanding waistline. I heaved my second child, then a wiggling twenty-month-old, from her five-point harness, placing her securely on my chest. She’d rather be anywhere but here; my feelings weren’t far from hers. I parked at the end of a gravel lot, past the other parents, some deep in conversation, some wrestling toddlers from traffic. I was late, always late, for preschool pick up.
My tardiness for pickup didn’t bother my oldest daughter in the least, probably because I always blamed her little sister. She felt safe in her sweet classroom, within the embrace of her patient teacher and loving classmates. Giggles echoed and her blond curls bounced joyfully, ambivalent to the active baby sister or her mother with persistent nausea.
I ducked past the other parents, since I was covered in baby yogurt and had hit the delightful point in pregnancy when none of my normal clothes fit. I wore the perpetual look of fatigue with a side of overwhelm coupled with confusion. I was adding daughters to our home with astounding speed, and I hadn’t quite found my stride as a parent. It was all new and uncomfortable, and it seemed like I was the only one harboring any uncertainty about my journey through parenthood.
My insecurity didn’t project onto our firstborn. Within the hallowed walls of preschool, she made the first steps of independence, away from my guidance and control. She was thriving, meeting each of the milestones and challenges along the way. She was safe, secure, and loved. With any luck, her three little sisters would be as well.
Three years ago, determined to bid farewell to babyhood in our house, I took the highchair out to the curb, still covered in ground up snacks and juice spills. Our family decided there was absolutely no way we could salvage this chair. It made it through four daughters, and the highchair had the battle scars to prove it. Our youngest finally graduated to the big girl booster seat, and signs of increasing independence seemed to be just on the horizon. This transition wasn’t without its celebration, though that party came with moments of hesitation.
Frequent choking episodes earned our youngest daughter repeated trips to our local children’s hospital. A combination of multiple therapies and surgeries loomed on the horizon, while healthcare providers worked to determine how best to support her array of needs. Her growth and development weren’t at all typical yet getting a formal diagnosis would be years in the making. Even with my nursing foundation, I reached for help at every turn, grasping what every expert offered.
Our youngest daughter began morning preschool when she was two years old, just like her sisters. We continued intensive therapy as each milestone passed, adding on new specialists while new needs sneaked their way into our daily lives. Weeks into feeding therapy, almost a year after the choking episodes began, I asked the therapist, “What do I need to tell her teachers at school?”
“Well…..” the pause dragged on for an eternity.
“If we keep working together, she might be able to eat lunch safely at school.”
Even with my advanced degree in anticipating patient needs, the thought that my daughter wouldn’t be able to have a typical school experience hadn’t crossed my mind. I pictured her, just like her older sisters, enjoying lunch on the playground, surrounded by friends, and selecting only the chocolate chip cookies on Fridays from the school cafeteria. I pictured birthday parties, play dates, and growing independence from the confines of our home.
Except, maybe not.
Tomorrow, the baby we hadn’t even dreamed of when our family first stepped into the preschool building moves to kindergarten. My friend’s comment on my lack of sentimentality as we close this chapter circles in my brain. Where are the tears? Why don’t I mark this passage of time with the same sappiness I bring to romantic comedies and wedding toasts?
Babysitters, preschool tuition, and pandemic Zoom classes add up to an overworked and exhausted mother. Early childhood was fraught with uncertainty and change, and in our house, it was accompanied by a new baby every time I blinked my eyes. While I would never exchange this time for anything else, since it gave us our girls, I am eager to move forward.
Rampant insecurity stayed close throughout these early years. As I grew into my role as a mother, the discomfort lessened. The girls and I found our stride, complete with logical conversations and less nagging. Even as I circle the house, replacing discarded items to their rightful location, I’m reminded this annoying chore is certainly an improvement on the overtaxed motherlode of infancy and toddlerhood.
We loved our time in the hallowed walls of our preschool. I treasure the nurturing environment, dear friends, and sound foundation we received during our tenure. But I cannot be sad about moving onto the next step. The thought of the alternative, which was almost our reality, is too much for my heart.
Loading dishes one evening, I debate the sense of malaise about my own reaction to the passage of time. I look across the kitchen to my girls, fully engrossed in a game of Monopoly. My happy, thriving, hard-working girls, who are counting the moments until school starts again.
Their contagious joy brings me out of my retroactive reflection and into the present moment. Today has cleats and crafts instead of highchairs, carpools and Minecraft instead of playgroups. God willing, tomorrow will have varsity sports and driver’s tests, followed by packed bags and first jobs.
Will sentimentality arrive down the road? Maybe so. I fully believe I might burst into tears somewhere unexpected, like a soccer tournament or youth group meeting. But that day is not today, and I believe, with the confidence that eluded me for so long, that I am the mother my children need.
Through it all, I’ll be there, alongside my girls, maybe crying, maybe not, as each chapter ends and a new one begins.