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Missing the First Day of School

This week my kids start school, and I won't be there.

This isn't new territory for them. My husband, a commercial pilot and Air Force Reserves officer, travels frequently, and when he leaves for work, they expect that he’ll be gone for much longer than another parent's typical eight-hour day.

This time, though, it's me who’s leaving them. And as a work-at-home mom and the usually home-bound parent, my absence is much more disconcerting to them anytime I leave.

But with such a big milestone like the first day of school, my heart is heavy as well.

My work-related absence was originally coordinated with their second week of school, but when their new school's start date was changed, it coincided with the week that I would be away.

With a father who's gone half the month, it’s not that my four kids aren’t used to having only one parent around, even during special events. He missed the first birthday of one of our daughters when he was deployed to Afghanistan. And he's been gone for countless dance recitals, soccer games and various first-time rituals of their childhood. None of this is by choice, but because it's the hand he’s been dealt: working two jobs that don’t necessarily allow him to pick the days he works, much less allow him weekends off.

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Plus, because we have so many kids, we rarely attend large events as a family. My husband and I agreed long ago that we had technology for a reason, and that reason was so that both of us did not need to sit through a two-hour-long dance recital or blazing hot soccer matches with three noisy kids under 5.

And we couldn’t swallow the money it would cost us to get a babysitter and leave the smaller kids at home.

Through all of this, I imagine he's just as sad as I am that I'm missing one of the quintessential childhood milestones—even though he doesn’t talk about it much—because, unfortunately, it’s more typical for a dad to be gone than a mom.

At least he doesn’t have to endure the “Aren’t you sad you’re going to be away?” questions.

As my children get older, the firsts seem bigger, perhaps because I still remember my own—my first lost tooth, first dance recital, first day of school. And they were all a big deal to me then.

I guess I want them to be just as memorable for my own kids. As memorable as my own mother made them for me, with a husband, who, like mine, was frequently gone.

Of course, I fear the uninspired shadowy photographs my husband will take on his old cracked iPhone. And he will forget to text them to me even though I've reminded him three times. I’ll be lucky if there’s any video footage, since he only has so many hands and a lot of kids to get ready.

And as he's the under-celebrator in our house, I worry that he'll just treat it like any other day, without any sort of special significance, forgetting the special breakfast I planned for them and breezing through the carefully written notes of encouragement I stuck in their backpacks.

I've never been on the other side: The one who gets the news via text. The photos through email. The stories told secondhand.

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So I decided to channel my energy into something more productive than moping by stuffing their backpacks full of carefully labeled zip-top bags. I organized all of the lunch boxes on the counter, with shiny new water bottles waiting to be filled.

We also shopped till we dropped for the perfect back-to-school outfits, which I laid out for them in their rooms.

And even though I almost made it without crying—that is, until my oldest daughter told me, "I'm sad that you're not going to be here, mom" when they dropped me off at the airport—I know I'll be fine, enjoying a quiet hotel room and peaceful meals all by myself.

I'm pretty sure they probably won't think about me when they run excitedly from the car into their brand-new school. And as much as I’ll want to talk to them on the phone or FaceTime with them later that evening, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in bed super early, completely exhausted from that big first day as students.

The truth is that I've been lucky to have a slew of firsts alone with my children. And I know I’ll have a ton more. And when it comes down to it, I'm excited that my husband, no matter how many awful photos he'll probably take or special heart-shaped pancakes he'll botch, gets his first with them alone too.

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