Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of my door.
Turn Around by Malvina Reynolds and Alan Greene
Autumn is my favorite time of year and there’s nowhere the season is more provincial than in the Midwest. A tangible chill in the morning air softens the heat of summer and signals a coming change. Seemingly overnight, leaves begin to turn. Variegated branches hint of color that will soon become rich orange, yellow and red, flaming briefly before falling to the ground and creating nature’s perfect playground for jumping children. The farmer’s market yields a spread of eggplant, pumpkin, corn, squash and apples; not only a visual feast, but a culinary mother lode for comfort foods that fill the house with the tantalizing aromas of savory soups, roasted vegetables, freshly baked bread, and apple pie. Thrushes, sparrows and other song birds nest mid-migration, on their way to warmer climates. The days shorten and the pull of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is felt. My own focus gravitates homeward; summer is over. It’s time to go back to school.
There are calendar years, fiscal years, and even dog years, but when it comes to family life with children, the passage of time is measured in academic years. It’s the real ‘Happy New Year.’ New grades and new classes, new friends and new beginnings. And new school supplies. Maybe it doesn’t flip everyone’s switch, but when I was a little girl, the sight of clean, lined paper, sharpened yellow pencils, un-smudged bubble-gum pink erasers and a box of fresh, pointy crayons excited me like toys on Christmas morning.
As a mom, however, the sight of school supplies and Back-to-School marketing campaigns rolled out right after the 4th of July, fills me with dread. Just the thought of the shopping trip exhausts me, but it has to be done. So, every year I mix with the crush of other harried parents, searching for the right brand of scissors and 15 colored folders with pockets and brads. Sydney wanders around putting random things in our cart and Haley, list in hand, reads loudly across the aisles, “’One package 2 count black dry erase markers—thin.’ Mom, these ones are fat ones. Look at the list, Mom! It says thin. Mom, Mom, MOM!!! We have to find the ones that are not fat.”
By the 20th item on the list, the girls are bickering and poking at each other as I hiss threats under my breath, hoping no one I know is within earshot. The last 2½ months of orchestrating recreational activities including summer school, swimming, sleep-away camp, VBS, Lose the Training Wheels, drama camp, assorted play dates, visits to MeMe’s house . . . oh, and a 2 week vacation to the beach and Disney World, has left me zilch in the way of patience when Haley whines for the 99th time, “But, Mom, what are we going to do fun today?”
School cannot start soon enough. I am done with 24/7 togetherness and daydream about the stretches of hours when they’re productively occupied; learning, exploring, growing, recreating . . . without me. I fantasize about blowing kisses after the bus then walking into my quiet house, coffee mug in hand and heaving a deep sigh of relief as I shut the front door behind me. Even if it’s just paying the bills and folding the laundry, it will be so much easier without my little constant companions. And having lunch with friends or getting a massage? I’m counting the days. At this point, I just need space from my children.
The kids have gone from lamenting the end of summer to looking forward to seeing their friends as they meet their teachers at 0pen house. They’ve got new haircuts and special first day outfits; they are ready. I remember clearly what I wore my first day in 1969: a red denim button-up dress, red knee socks and two-toned brown suede saddle shoes. I felt stylish and proud and the picture shows it.
I see that confidence in Haley, sporting the latest ensemble with accessories from Gymboree; a little girl of the sort who climbs trees, bruises and scrapes her knees, but still loves to put on her sparkly red Mary Jane’s when she’s feeling fancy. And Sydney, who’s shifted into adolescence, her tastes reflecting her identity. She’s no longer a child, but a teenager, who moves from rack to rack at Old Navy wanting everything she sees.
As they pose for the iconic first-day-of-school pictures, I’m astounded, as I am every year, at how much they’ve changed. My mind does a quick rewind to the toddlers they were just yesterday; cheeks rounder then, their whole bodies padded and soft.
“When did this happen?” I think, looking at their long, slender legs and angular faces.
“How could their childhood be passing so quickly?”
I try to stop myself from fast forwarding to visions of driving, dating and graduating, but they come to mind unbidden. With the first two, I’ve seen how fast it goes and it makes me want to stop time in its tracks. As I look at my little beauties, I’m touched by their unpretentious courage as they prepare to venture innocently out into the world, yet again.
This year Sydney was very apprehensive approaching 7th grade and as we tucked her in on the last night of summer vacation, she said, “I’m a little nervous, Mom. Dad.” We told her everyone was a little nervous.
“Actually, I’m not nervous,” Haley chimed in. Thanks, kid. That helps a lot.
We kept reassuring Sydney everything would be fine, while wondering ourselves. Would it really?
She was still uneasy when Steven got her up this morning, bright and early. “Daddy, I’m nervous,” she said, leaning into his chest. After a little hugging and prodding, he got her moving. She bathed and dressed and combed her long hair. She ate breakfast and packed her lunch. She sharpened her pencil and put on her backpack. Then she waited for the bus.
Most of the time the door-to-door provision of special education transportation works well; Sydney has ridden since 1st grade. Unfortunately on this — the first day of school — it never came. We waited 45 minutes and as Sydney’s anxiety mounted, I made the decision to take her, wishing I’d just driven her in the first place.
“I’m nervous, Mom. I might throw up. ” she said, clutching me as we climbed the stairs. After a few wrong turns we found the right room; a ‘class within a class.’ As part of a new design Sydney will spend some of her academic time with her typically-developing peers, a progressive step towards inclusion. The students have a range of abilities and will work at their own level—but together, in the same environment, learning the same material.
Arriving late, Sydney sat at a table with an open seat and as I spoke with the teacher I noticed she put her head down on her arms. I prepared to leave but when I bent to say good-bye, she lifted her little face to me—splotchy and wet with tears. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. She whispered, “I’m just nervous. I don’t want to stay!” Then looking at the boy next to her, she cried, “And I don’t know him!” She threw her arms around my neck and shook with sobs.
I thought of Elizabeth Stone’s definition of motherhood: ‘to have your heart go walking around outside your body.’ Mine has been roaming the world for 27 years and that day it was wearing hot pink jeggings and a glittery chiffon top from Justice.
When my first baby was born, I didn’t know much, but I knew I loved her with a powerful force that instantly transformed me. I went from being a young woman, self-focused and unimpeded, to being a young mother, responsible for a tiny human life. A wellspring of devotion and adoration simply materialized and meeting her every need was a simple biological compulsion. My desire to nurture and vigilantly protect her was matched only by my sheer and utter exhaustion. And thus I came smack up against my enigma as a mother.
Once my children breathed life, I ceased to be an autonomous human being. Their very existence ensured I could never again live with thoughts only of myself, free from worry. So that even when I wanted and desperately needed relief of responsibility, I was unable to take it without apprehension or guilt; to trust their care to someone else and let go of control required a quieting of my basest impulse—my fear that something would happen to them if I weren’t there to make sure it didn’t.
When Melissa went to kindergarten, I’d had a little practice. It got easier with the right caregivers. But the keen, sharp sense that she was mine, and my primary purpose in life, never diminished. As I walked her to school that first day I said a little prayer. “Please, keep my child safe; safe from bodily harm and danger, yes, but protect her innocence and fragile sense of self, too.” Back then parents left their kids, even kindergarteners, on the playground to wait for the bell, so I hugged her goodbye, and swallowing my tears, walking the ½ block back to our house.
Not home but 15 minutes, before school had even begun, my beautiful laughing girl ran home, crying, because a boy had made fun of her sandals. I gathered her in my arms and felt a surge of yearning to take away her pain. Sheltering her the only way I knew how at the time, I let her stay with me, bartering the balance between keeping my chicks under my wing and allowing them out of the nest.
My second, my son, Jeremy, was clingy. He would wrap his little arms around my thighs and hang his whole body weight, as he begged me not to leave. My quandary amplified—I needed to trust that he’d be alright, to give him the chance to find self-reliance, but my inclination was to indulge and comfort. Still, I learned to be strong, and walk away. And he learned to love school, reassured that I would always come back.
Years later when Sydney graced our lives, her Down syndrome reignited my protective tendencies. But, as well, parenting a child with a disability taught me that too much shielding can thwart opportunities to meet challenges and overcome difficulties. When she was learning to crawl, her physical therapist put her through proprioceptive and strengthening exercises. To say Sydney did not like it is an understatement; she fought and resisted and cried. In a sing-song voice, her PT encouraged, cheered and motivated her. The therapist didn’t back down because she knew, this was how Sydney would learn.
By the time Haley started school, my qualms were nearly gone and it was a celebration for both of us. This child was born ready and I was by then…. seasoned. Her eagerness and enthusiasm amazed me and her approach to life conveyed a bravado that has a lot to do with who she is, though, I like to think it may also have something to do with who I’ve become as a mother.
Today, as she starts 7th grade, I unwrap Sydney’s arms from around my neck and pull back to look at her, wiping a tear that has pooled beneath her glasses. Maternal fire surges through my veins, leaving me no choice; to protect is my first and strongest archetypal instinct. The same fire that all those years ago led me to shroud Melissa completely from her first day experience won’t let me leave Sydney this way. But unlike then, I know she can face her fear and come out on the other side, triumphant. And I need to let her.
“See that girl over there at the other table?” I nod in the direction of a quiet girl, sitting alone holding her backpack. She appears wary, maybe even nervous. When she sees Sydney, she smiles, and Sydney waves back. “You’re going to make new friends,” I say. “It’s going to be great.”
As I help my daughter go over her schedule, I see her physically relax; everyone needs structure, and a kiddo with a disability, even more so. As the period ends and the students prepare to change classes, Sydney follows directions to line up. Somehow, through the noise and chaos, she finds the right line and there, standing in it, is a friend from last year. “Look, Sydney!” I say, gesturing. “Adam!” she cries, coming to life and running to give him a hug. “Time to go, kids,” the teacher says. With a smile and wave to me, she falls in behind Adam and walks away. Now I can leave her to manage on her own.
I turn and head back down the stairs, caught off-guard when a familiar feeling suddenly surfaces, tears gathering at the backs of my eyes; sinuses stinging, throat tightening. Every time it is a leap—releasing my children into the ecosphere. Yet, with every letting go, there remains the chance to replace fear with trust, to replace doubt with belief.
Sydney’s first day of 7th grade feels the same as Haley’s first day of kindergarten, when she lined up with the other little ones, timid and unsure, but hopeful. It feels the same as Jeremy’s first day of 8th grade at a rural Jr. High in a small town where he was the new kid from the city. It feels the same as Melissa’s first semester at college, as I settled her into a dorm room and drove hundreds of miles away, leaving her for the first time all alone.
Like a mother bird caring for her brood, the inevitable time comes to teach the fledglings to fly. As the babies perch treacherously on high branches, hopping and twitching, flapping their wings and squawking incessantly with helplessness, the mama swoops in and out, coming close, but then flying off again, all the while answering with her own cries as if to say, “You can do this! I’m right here.”
Taking my cue from her, I coax my chicks from the nest. They can’t stay here forever and God knows I don’t want them to. They will be scared; they will fall and they might even get hurt. But this is how they learn. They discover how capable they are by leaping to their potential, taking wing and soaring into their own wide world. And I’ll be calling, “You can do this! I’m right here. Fly, babies, fly.”