Before I was a mom, back when I used to see social media as fun rather than torture, I would roll my eyes at those captions accompanying photos of kids headed off to their first day of school.
“My baby is gone!” or “Where did my baby go?” followed by crying face emojis were the worst.
As a child in the 1980s, I loved school more than anything. My classroom was where I learned cool new things and saw my friends. Spelling and math came easy and I thrived on earning gold stars.
Back then, if my mom had expressed anything besides excitement about back-to-school time, I’m pretty sure I would’ve found her irritating. If she’d called me her baby, I would’ve wished she’d shut up and stop embarrassing me.
In 2015, when my little sister started posting about how sad she was that her daughter — her baby — was starting kindergarten, I said to my husband, “What’s the kid supposed to do, stay little forever?” and he shook his head right along with me. My due date was approaching and as I waddled around sweaty and judgmental in the early September heat, we swore we’d never be those parents.
On Sept. 10, my daughter Violet will start kindergarten. And now, with a mixture of shame and self-justification, I admit that I too have mixed emotions about my child going off to school.
For almost a year Violet has been saying, “I’m so excited for kindergarten, I can hardly wait!”
I never thought I’d feel the way I do now. I like to think of myself as someone who embraces new experiences and faces fears. At 17, I studied abroad in a country where I didn’t know the language. At 25, I jumped out of an airplane to fight my fears of flying and heights. To kill off the panicked heartbeat and shaky voice that used to accompany the mere thought of public speaking, I became a roller derby announcer.
I expected to be a mom who encouraged bravery, not one whose eyes well up just thinking about my masked child walking through the school doors without me. My past and present selves have collided in my mind.
“What’s the kid supposed to do, stay little forever?”
I’ve been trying to hide my nerves. My own mother’s stress came off her in waves that splashed us all, and I always swore I’d never be that mom.
“How many days until kindergarten, Mom?!” Violet asks over breakfast one morning.
I force a smile, pull out the calendar and we count the days. My panicked heartbeat and shaky voice return as I say, “It’s almost time!”
Violet’s dad jokes that she and I are like E.T. and Elliot in the 1982 movie we all love, our moods and emotions connected by an invisible thread between her body and mine. I want to protect her, so when I’m feeling fragile, I turn on the shower and hide and let it all flow down the drain before returning to Violet with a smile.
“Mom,” Violet says with a sudden tremble. “I’m excited for kindergarten ...”
She pauses. I wait.
She whispers, “I’m a little scared too.”
Violet smiles, then frowns. As she lists her worries, her voice gets louder, more intense, then quiet again. I tell her the other kids feel the same way and she laughs.
“Other kids are excited and nervous too?”
When I confess that I’m a little nervous, Violet leaps out of her chair and hugs me. Her arms squeeze my neck a little too tight and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake trying too hard to protect her, to keep everything wrapped up in a giggle and a smile. Fears have a way of growing in isolation. Sharing them can take away their power, even make them sound silly when spoken out loud.
At the Key Peninsula Art Walk last month, Violet and I sat on the grass behind Blend with a group of kids at sunset. When I asked if they were excited about school, a small girl admitted feeling scared. Rather than an autopilot reply “It’ll be so fun” or “School is the best,” I told them that all the kids in all the grades probably feel that way right now, and that everyone has heightened back-to-school nerves in a way that didn’t exist before the pandemic hit us all.
“I’m scared too!” Violet’s best friend said, her voice filled with glee and relief. One by one, they chimed in, reminding me that hard things feel easier when we’re not alone.
As darkness descended on Key Center, the children ate freshly picked blackberries and danced barefoot in the dark. Watching them together, one of the moms turned to me with a smile and said, “I think they’re going to be OK.”
Krisa Bruemmer lives in Vaughn.
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