"Mommy, don't go away!" my two-year-old daughter yells angrily.
I stare at her in confusion. At the moment, I happen to be sitting right next to her reading "Peppa Pig and the Busy Day at School" for the millionth time.
"Um, I'm right here, sweetie" I tell her.
"But don't go away!" she repeats.
Suddenly, I understand. She's not talking about right now. She's thinking about this morning when I dropped her off for her fourth day of preschool. "Silly, Mommy," I say to myself. "You totally thought this was going to be easy."
To be honest, I had been looking forward to preschool starting with a kind of vicarious excitement for over a year. I had researched and toured a long list of schools in my area, until I found one that felt absolutely right and when my daughter was 18 months old, we joined the school's weekly Mommy & Me toddler group, so that she could get used to the environment.
For months, she happily painted pictures, rode tricycles, and played with the pet bunny. She would grab her favorite teacher's hand and run off to explore the seeds inside a pumpkin or a new water table without even glancing at me.
"Totally winning this parenting thing!" I congratulated myself. I imagined her waving cheerfully, "Bye-bye, Mommy!" on the first day of school, while other kids wailed and clung to their parents' legs.
Yeah, I know.
Hadn't I learned by now that the moment you declare victory as a parent is the moment your kid gets ready for a total meltdown? I was kind of like George W. Bush parachuting onto the preschool aircraft carrier with the Mission Accomplished sign. Get ready for another battle, folks.
But the reality is that even though she's a confident child who loves her school and has a wonderful time there, she's pissed off.
What I clearly didn't prepare for or even really understand was the major emotional transition that is school separation. For some kids, it's no big deal when Mommy or Daddy gives them a kiss and walks out the door. For others, it is heartbreakingly difficult. No matter how much careful, loving preparation they have had, they will cry and scream and resist this transition for weeks or even months.
Preschools handle this issue in a variety of ways. From the schools that do it cold turkey, rip off the Band-Aid, say goodbye on Day 1, to very gradual approaches that slowly extend the amount of time that parents are gone over a period of weeks. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a right way that works for everyone. And so moms and dads either breeze out the door feeling fantastic, or covertly sob in their cars after drop off, because so many tears!
I've been doing both of these, depending on my daughter's mood. But the reality is that even though she's a confident child who loves her school and has a wonderful time there, she's pissed off. She's angry at me. It makes no sense in her two-year-old brain why Mommy can't stay with her at school, why she can't play with her friends and teachers and also have me there whenever she would like.
And why would it?
What I have realized during this bumpy experience is that I need to let her know this is OK. She's allowed to have fun and also miss me. She's allowed to get mad and protest the fact that I'm leaving her. I can take it. And I'm always coming back.
This morning was an easy breezy kind of day. My daughter ran right over to the play dough table and started making "cookies." I kissed her, and she gave me that exact cheerful wave, I had been dreaming about.
As I walked out the door, I realized that the separation blues goes both ways. I miss her.
And so I sobbed in the car anyway.