In just a few days time, my little Charlotte heads off to the Big K. No, she's not going shopping for blue light specials at the discount retailer. She's headed to Kindergarten. Kindergarten: the best year you'll ever have, full of fun, friends, and big steps. Back in ye olden times, when I was a kid, going to Kindergarten may have been the first time a child was away from her mom or dad for the day. It may have been the first time a child was in a group with other children, eating meals not cooked by family, following rules set forth by strange adults. The first bus rides. The first backpack. The first time to put one's name in her coat and boots. The first invitations to other kids' birthday parties. The first fight on the playground. For Charlotte, and many of her peers, she has experienced all of these before she ever set foot in the Kindergarten classroom.
Charlotte is a daycare kid. Only three months after her birth, she was placed into the hands of a non-family adult (we won't call her a stranger because that makes me feel like a really bad parent), fed meals, not cooked by me, around a table with other children. Her 6-12 month baby clothes had her name printed in them. We have been making the birthday party circuit for years. She's ridden a city bus on field trips. She's loved and fought and loved and fought again, with many of her peers. She takes direction and follows the rules. She's got plenty of backpacks. None of this will be new for Char. Never fear, Charlotte will head, boldly and fearlessly, to school. My baby is going to take school in stride.
Oh shit. My baby! My baby is going to Kindergarten. Where did the five and a half years go? Wasn't it just yesterday that she was an idea, a hope, a bean in my belly? Her birth is imprinted on my memory-her hair, her feet, her soft body against mine at long last. From conception: her every breath as my own. I don't remember life without her and life before is not as rich or as good or as meaningful. I was not me until I had her. My last baby. She completed me. My children are my puzzle pieces. They fit around me ever so perfectly. Alone, one only sees a piece of me. Together, with my children, one sees all of me.
While she has been away from me day after day, for years now, I still can't help but be emotional about this rite of passage. Whether via daycare or preschool,it was my choice to have someone else help me to raise her. It was my decision to share her tiny joy and light with other children and adults. Going to Kindergarten is symbolic. It is the official beginning of her formal learning. It marked the moment developmentally, and long ago, that we, as a society, deemed the best time to send our children away from us. In sending her to Kindergarten I am telling the world, free of (judgment)that she is ready to be away from me. She officially needs me less.
Of course, I don't need her any less. I want to hold her as much as I did the moment she was placed in my arms on her birth day. Just because she will learn to tie her shoes and spell her name does not mean that I don't need her to be my baby.
Parents always need a baby. Perhaps that is why we sometimes see a trend of five/six year differences between siblings. Our hearts and bodies are protecting us. Our hormones know what's coming. We want to be wanted and needed. No matter how much we complain about it, we love it. We need babies like an addiction. The smell of a newborn is like crack to a parent.
As I packed Charlotte's school supplies into her backpack and read her teacher's welcome letter to her, I felt that twinge. That little hope and joy, that spark that I created, the spark of life giving. I twinged because I have extinguished it.
The other day, I picked Charlotte up from summer camp. Two young (and what appeared to be, to me, baby-faced and wrinkle-free) moms were picking up their babies. I watched the two of them carry the little buns in their car seats. The moms looked tired, maybe a little nervous and madly in love with their baby. They were beautiful and I felt very sad in that moment. I've just returned to work full-time, which like Charlotte going to Kindergarten, felt like my symbolic way of telling the world I was ready not to be away from the kids. (Am I?)
That day, I realized I am no longer a young mother, nervously making my way through this adventure called parenting. In having two school-aged children, it means I've made it to the Varsity team at long last. I'm not nervous anymore. I'm confident. I've got this, you know, as much as a parent can get it. I don't want to be old! I want to be a young, hormonal mom, at the start of this wild adventure. I question myself. Is my puzzle complete? Is this all of me?
Ok, so I haven't actually extinguished my baby making flame. I could still have a third baby. I could smell baby again. I could change diapers, feel the soft skin against mine. I could make our lives richer and deeper. I could not remember any of this because it wouldn't matter as much until baby 3 arrived.
But, I'm not going to have another baby. Having a third baby is not going to make me younger. I won't look like those young moms because I'm not young anymore. As a matter of fact, having kids makes you look and feel older, so getting knocked up would knock me over the hill in a blink of an eye. A decade has flown by. I want to grab it before another decade goes by. I'm going to be as addicted to pre-teen smell as baby smell. I'm going to make them hug me so I can feel their hearts beating next to mine. I'm still going to need them and they are going to need me, just in new and different ways.
So, next week, when the day the big yellow bus rolls up to my driveway and takes my baby away, I am going to cry. I'm also going to believe my puzzle is complete.