Some people looovee the first day of school. New backpacks, fresh pencils, the crisp, fall air.
Not me. I’ve never liked it.
I remember my own first days. The nights before I’d lay in bed, tossing and turning with huge knots in my stomach. My worries were like, “Who will be in my class?” “Who will I sit with at lunch?” “Should I really wear that shirt?” “Will I do something completely humiliating that ruins my life?”
The day itself was always met with nervousness, uncertainty, reluctance and a certain amount of fear. On the outside I looked fine, but on the inside, waves of anxiety were crashing through me and threatening to break the surface.
Now I get to re-live first days of school through my children. And they are still pretty hard for me. Partly because I remember how I nervous I felt myself on my own first days, and partly because watching them grow up and move on to another grade, another year, another stage in life is just plain hard.
I nearly fell apart the first days I had to drop the kids off at daycare. They were just babies. But they were fine. They were safe in the arms of their teachers, cooing and crying and playing and eating. I was a crazy person. I was a puddle on the floor. I couldn’t believe I was just handing them off. My worries those days were like “Is this the right thing?” “Will they be okay?” “No one loves them like I do, how can I just leave them?” “What kind of mom just leaves them?”
The first time I handed Caleb off to his teacher, I practically ran out of the daycare. I fled the building, sought refuge in my car, shut the door, and let the tears fall. I think it was even raining, which was perfect. Drenched and soggy is how I felt. I just rested my head on the steering wheel like a pillow and sat in the jarring silence. Missing him.
It felt a lot like actual, physical pain. My heart was silently imploding. In slow motion. Like one of those carefully planned building demolitions. You know it’s going to happen, but it’s all so massive and messy. You feel so unprepared, unsafe and undone.
And you think it’s over, but it’s not. Because then there’s the first day of Kindergarten. That day, I worried, “Isn’t he too little for this?” “Will he make friends?” “Will he change in ways I won’t like?” “Whyyyyy is he growing up so faaaaast?”
I didn’t even feel like I was entitled to be sad. After all, I'd been taking him to daycare for years. I was used to the early mornings, the new teachers the hard goodbyes. I wasn’t just leaving him for the first time. SO WHY WAS IT STILL SO DANG HARD?? I tried to minimize my big emotions by thinking “you’ve been here before; this is no big deal.” It was true - I had done this before. I was a seasoned child-leaver.
But it was a big deal. It’s all a big deal.
Taking care of these little people is the most important job, calling and role we’ve ever had. We love them with a fierce, crazy, protective love. And a first day in a new class, new grade, new year can feel like an assault on that. It's a fresh, flashy reminder that we are less in control that we ever were.
We are nervous because we know ourselves how it felt so be so full of questions and worries and anticipation that it ties your stomach in knots. And we are sad because we are being asked yet again to loosen the ties that bind them to us – to release them further than we ever have before. And we want them close. Always, we want them close. If we had the choice and made up the rules of life, we’d probably choose to protect them forever and never let them go. Ever. We’d keep them tucked safely under our arms listening to gospel music and watching PBS for life. And allow only the nicest, most generous people in their vicinity.
Who will give them the nudges and winks at just the right moments? Who will remind them to wear their jackets at recess? Who will scratch their backs and stroke their heads just the way they like it? Who, if not us?
Oh yeah. Other people. Other lovely, trained, experienced, nurturing, smart and caring people. But still not us. And it’s the “not us” that’s like a stick of dynamite to the chest.
Just a few days ago, Caleb had his first day of FIRST GRADE and Kenzie had her first day of Pre-K at a new school and everything inside me felt like it was crumbling all over again. I dropped the kids off and watched as other moms and dads walked with their heads hung low, wiping away tears, hugging other parents, laughing and rejoicing. There was no minimizing or diminishing of feelings. I joined in freely with them all – the stay at home moms, the full-time workers, the part-time workers – we all were the same as we collectively worried, “Do they have everything they need?” “Will people be kind?” “How will they handle success?” “How will they handle failure?”
And our kids looked back at us nervously. Maybe they had the same worries we did. Or maybe their worries were something like, “Is my mom ever going to leave?” “Really, is she going to just stand there outside of the door looking at me?” “Is she really taking another picture?” “She knows she’s supposed to leave now, right?”
When I think back to those first days, it’s really easy to remember the heartbreak. It’s harder to remember what happens AFTER the heartbreak. So I have to remind myself; I have to add this reality back into the narrative:
I stop crying. I pick my head up. I dab my eyes, turn the key and reverse out of that parking space. And I feel relief. Relief that it is over, that we got through it and that we are still alive.
My heart only FEELS like it has been demolished, but it is actually still beating steadily. It might be stronger than ever. God is here with me. He has my back. He told me we could do this, and He came through. He is covering me now. He is so good. He is covering me – in ways that assure me that He is also covering them in their little classrooms away from me. I can no longer feel the worries in my head screaming at me. They aren’t gone altogether, but, the sound of my beating heart is louder.
As it turns out, first days are good for us, too. They grow us, they change us, they move us forward like we are supposed to. Like they are supposed to.
I have this ever-present, insane desire to want to keep my children tucked safely under my arm. Or to go back in time to when they were just babies, when everything felt safe, close-by, golden and warm.
Let’s go back to that. Just for a day or a minute.
We don’t get to do that. And that's why we mourn with our joy and lament with our excitement every year we lead them into a new classroom and then walk out the door. That’s why we cry in our cars. We cry until we remember that our hearts will not crumble beyond repair. We remember that faith will seep slowly into our skin and fill us up with just enough strength to dry our faces, thank Jesus and turn the key.