It felt just the same as any other afternoon I picked her up from childcare. I opened the heavy front door, removed my shoes, and signed her out in the notebook on the table. The noise of happy children playing drifted over from the rug in the other room, and then my daughter spotted me. I wasn’t alone today; my husband and our oldest daughter came as well. Because today was the last day we would be picking Sophie up from First Steps, the learning center she’d been attending since she was an infant.
Sophie’s third birthday loomed, just weeks away, and she would be starting preschool the following week. I felt a knot in my stomach as Sophie ran to me and threw her arms around my neck. As soon as we left, we would be driving over to the open house at her new preschool, where she would meet her teachers and spend some time in her new classroom. The juxtaposition seemed to make the transition even clearer; leaving one place, journeying to the next.
As I hugged her childcare teacher—my close friend—goodbye, knowing that of course we would still see each other but it wouldn’t ever be within the context of this familiar, comforting routine, the lump finally formed in my throat. I felt my eyes fill with tears as we closed the door behind us. Are other people overcome by the hundreds of tiny, bittersweet losses that comprise parenthood the way that I am? Every incarnation of our children is beautiful, but as they evolve, their former selves are cast off like snakeskins. The waves roll in, the waves roll out—they take my breath away and they often pull me under.
On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Sophie and I spent one last leisurely day together, padding the space between our goodbye to First Steps and the first week of preschool. It was a blissful respite from the rigors of the busy weekly routine which waited to greet us in several days. I would go back to work finally. My eight-year-old had gone back to school several weeks earlier. This day was just for Sophie and me.
We took our time at home after dropping Izzy off at school, lingering over breakfast and then finally putting on our shoes and heading outside. I helped Sophie put on her helmet so she could ride her scooter, clad in a pajama top and skirt that her big sister had helped her put on. Sophie alternated between cruising on her scooter and stashing it in the stroller basket so she could ride; for once I wasn’t irritated about the transitions or hassles of in and out, over and over—we had all the time in the world. There were no arguments between sisters over stuffed animals or dollhouse furniture; there was no whining for a different snack or another TV show. I wasn’t thinking about work, or rushing to get out the door, or checking my iPhone. Why didn’t days like this come around more often? Life is too short not to savor these small moments, I thought as I soaked it in.
She picked dandelions and lovingly presented each one to me as a gift. We looked for birds, rabbits, tried to follow the sound of someone’s backyard chicken cackling at us. The morning was refreshingly cool and sunshine warmed our skin as we held hands, making our way back to the stroller. We returned home with a basket full of already-wilting dandelions, rocks, and sticks, the treasures of toddlerhood. Sophie scooted down the hill back home, and I ran wildly alongside her, likely resembling Phoebe in the episode of Friends where Rachel is embarrassed to be seen running with her, had Phoebe been pushing a stroller full of rocks, that is.
We came home and baked chocolate chip zucchini bread together before lunch and nap; it didn’t bother me when Sophie slopped flour all over the counter. She was so proud of her work, so happy to be helping me. I savored that day, a fleeting window between worlds.
After a long holiday weekend, the entire family once again piled into the minivan to take my almost-three-year-old to her first day of preschool. She approached the gate full of confidence, toting her bright pink Minnie Mouse lunchbox, even though she was only staying for a few hours and wouldn’t actually need it for lunch that day. When I hugged her goodbye, there was only a trace of hesitation in her eyes, but no tears. Mine spilled over when I was safely out of sight, walking back to the parking lot, forcing myself not to crane my neck for just one more glimpse of my little girl through the classroom window.
By the third day, the novelty had worn off. “Are you going to stay with me, Mommy?” Sophie asked anxiously as I crouched beside her on the rug. “No, honey, I’m going to work now,” I told her. “And I’ll be back right after lunch. Remember? You get to stay for lunch again!” I added brightly. Sophie frowned. “I’m going to be a little bit shy,” she whispered. “I’m a little bit scared, Mommy.” I hugged her firmly one more time, reminding her that her teachers were always there to help. My chest felt heavy, weighted by the dissonant experience of leaving a child who needs you.
I returned four hours later to find her class playing on the playground after lunch. Sophie didn’t notice my approach, and I was able to covertly watch her for several minutes. Spying her on top of a play structure, bellowing merrily at a classmate, I felt my heart flutter. She chased happily after the child, crooning, “Mama, mama!” and I knew she was playing her favorite game. When she finally spotted me, she ran over, cheeks flushed with excitement. “Mommy! We were playing Mama and baby! I was the baby,” she panted.
She was okay. She was happy. She would weather this transition with grace, feeling safe and secure in the nurturing environment of her new preschool. There is nothing quite so comforting and gratifying as knowing your child feels she belongs somewhere, that she has found her footing, or more appropriately, her wings.
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