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Preschool Separation Anxiety Was Hell Until We Made This One Change

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of my daughter Chloe, age 2 1/2, on her first day of preschool. She was smiling so proudly in her navy top and striped skirt—a schoolgirl ready to take on the world.

But 20 minutes later, when I attempted to drop her off and say goodbye, it wasn’t a pretty picture as Chloe grabbed my leg, screamed, “Don’t leave!” and burst into tears.

I thought I’d done everything right. I chose a sweet preschool with warm, nurturing teachers and an emphasis on learning through play. I’d committed my entire summer to being available for a transitional program called “stay and play,” during which my kid could get used to her new surroundings and make friends while I sat in the corner drinking coffee. I’d practiced leaving her at school for short stints, proving to her over and over again that “Mommy always comes back.”

Though she was on the young side for her grade, Chloe had seemed ready and excited to start preschool. And truth be told, I was ready and excited for her to start preschool.

As a stay-at-home mother of two, I’d been tethered for seven years, and while I’ve loved hanging with my little buddy all day, I was dying for some me time. In fact, I had a notebook filled with lofty goals for what I might accomplish during morning preschool. I was going to get in shape and lose 10 pounds, make photo albums from the last seven years, learn Spanish and maybe write a novel. Ha!

As I stood there, comforting Chloe, I felt all my goals evaporate. I wasn’t going to the gym. I wasn’t going anywhere.

Being a SAHM, this was the commitment I’d made to my kids—to be available. If I’d needed to go to work, I would have left without guilt, secure that my daughter was safe and would soon calm down. But I didn’t need to be at work. And I couldn’t wrap my head around leaving her to cry.

I was wracked with self-doubt. Should I stay? Should I go? Was she too young for preschool? Was I making a mistake?

For many days, I stayed on campus, hoping my daughter would get comfortable enough to eventually let me leave without tears. She didn’t.

The mom guilt weighed heavily. Each day, I grew more exhausted from anxiety, indecision and squishing my mom butt into a tiny chair while my toddler clung to my leg instead of making leaf collages like she was supposed to.

“You win,” I thought. I took her hand and we walked out the door and went home.

And, strangely, you know what this uneasy time reminded me of? Sleep training. Back when my baby was 7 months old, still waking up every 90 minutes to nurse all night long, I’d bitten the bullet and left her to cry it out. But the whole time I’d questioned myself and my motives. Why was I doing this? Didn’t I choose to be a SAHM so I could be there for my children? Was I being selfish, letting her cry just so I can get some sleep?

So, here I was, at another parenting crossroads where I didn't know what to do. And I also had to pee. Because, while the rest of her class ate snacks and listened to a story, Chloe was hugging my waist and refusing to let me separate from her long enough to even use the bathroom. “Take me with you,” she whined.

Something in me broke right them. Tears sprouted and rolled down my face. “You win,” I thought. I took her hand and we walked out the door and went home. The preschool director assured me they’d hold a spot for Chloe if we wanted to take a break. I decided to sleep on it.

In the morning, I woke with fresh inspiration. I had something in mind—sort of a Hail Mary pass to try before giving up on preschool altogether. I asked my husband to bring Chloe to school instead of me. It would make him a few minutes late to work, but he knew what I’d been going through and was happy to help.

Shortly after 9 a.m., I got the call. “She did great!” he cheered. Apparently, Chloe had hugged him goodbye and ran off to play with friends, seemingly erasing weeks of agonizing separation anxiety.

It’s not that Chloe isn’t closely bonded to her father—they’re obsessed with each other. But she understands that Daddy leaves every day to go to work. So, she accepted it in a way that she couldn’t accept it with me.

My husband’s been handling drop-off for a while now and it’s going beautifully. But I know that the next time he has a dentist appointment or an early meeting, I’m going to have to step up and be brave for my daughter—and for me.

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