So my daughter starts Kindergarten in three days. Actually, in two days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes, but who’s counting? She couldn’t be more thrilled. The fact that she’s still a little vague on the details doesn’t keep her from being excited about it: riding the big yellow bus, bringing her lunch with her, going to school every day, rather than the three mornings a week that preschool offers. She is the picture of anticipation, boldly going where virtually every five-year-old in recent history has gone before.
I, on the other hand, am freaking out.
She’s not ready! my maternal alarm system shrieks. All day is too long! it protests, Five days a week is too many! School changes everything. I know this, and it fuels my fears. I worry that my blissfully television-free child will suddenly know all about characters of whom I’ve never heard and, worse, will want to watch them. I fear that the little girl who decks herself out each morning in some bizarre and fabulous combination of clothing and jewelry will suddenly want to wear what her classmates are wearing, which is to say what their older sisters are wearing, which is to say what Ashlee Simpson is (or isn’t) wearing. And more than that, I am afraid that school will be too restrictive, too structured, too sedentary, too competitive… too different from home. We know her best, we love her most, and therefore we know what’s best for her. So goes my reasoning, if it can be called that.
What this leaves out of the equation, of course, is her.
What I have finally realized is that my apprehension about sending my firstborn off to school has a lot more to do with me than with her. It’s my job to separate from her, and to teach her to separate from me. She’s supposed to go off and do things we don’t do at home, that’s called independence. I am supposed to be a guide, not a warden, providing a safety net, not a cage. If I am afraid to let her go, what does that say to her?
If it sounds like I’m trying to convince myself, I am. This is hard! But so was giving birth, our first act of separation, and weaning, probably our second. So was letting her walk without holding my hand for the first time, and realizing that she could play in her room without me hovering over her. Actually, that last one was fantastic, but that’s not the point. The point is that motherhood, and more broadly parenthood, is at least in part about separation. A little at a time, we teach them to live without us, to blaze their own paths, and to be their own people. It’s hard, yes, but it’s necessary, and if you don’t do it, you’ve failed both your child and yourself.
A famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote likens raising a child to launching an arrow from a bow. You aim carefully, Emerson says, but when you let it fly it may still be affected by things beyond your control. This is an appealing but flawed metaphor. Children are rarely, if ever, either totally within or totally beyond their parents’ influence. At age 34 I routinely call my parents for advice on things ranging from etiquette to taxes, and of course for help raising my own children. At the same time, I remember asserting my budding independence in myriad ways beginning quite some time before I was officially launched from the bow. No, raising a child is more like exerting some kind of force – magnetic, maybe, or gravitational. The younger and closer the child is, the stronger the force. As the child grows up and moves away, the force weakens, but it’s never really broken. We still float around in the same galaxy (although I understand that during the teenage years this is questionable), and our influence is still felt. With apologies to George Lucas, trying to keep the force strong is both an exercise in futility and an invitation to disaster.
I’m still not thrilled that she gets on the bus at 7 a.m., eats lunch at 10:30, and gets only a 20-minute recess. But she’s thrilled. And, really, it’s all about her.