As I pulled forward in the drop-off line, I felt a sickness in my stomach. I tried to hold back the tears. When the school greeter opened the car door, I felt a wave of emotion bubble up inside me. I told myself to keep it together so he wouldn’t panic. I mustered up enough to say: Have a good day. Momma loves you.
My sweet boy, anxious for the first day back to school and ready to see his friends and teachers, jumped out of the car with a hurried “I love you, too. Bye!”
And just like that it was over. Needless to say my drive back home wasn’t pretty.
Now let me be clear: this wasn’t the first, first day of school. However, it was the first day of school that didn’t consist of parents crowding into the classroom to snap pictures, help unpack backpacks, and say multiple goodbyes as the teacher patiently waited for them to leave and allow him or her to begin. This was the first day he would walk himself into school. The first day I didn’t get to make sure he was settled in his new classroom. The first day I didn’t loiter in the hall peeping through the small square window in the center of the door. That day signified the end of one era and the beginning of the next. And it was already seven years ago.
I also recall the last day of middle school, in which we literally had the same routine:
- Pull forward in the drop-off line.
- I attempt some new affirmation like: “Remember if you want to be known as a good student, you have to be a good student.”
- He responds with one of three standard lines: “Okay,” “What,” or . . . silence.
- He clumsily gets his backpack, instrument, cell phone, and spare shoes (because he can’t play ball after school in the shoes he’s wearing).
- We say our rehearsed: “Love you, have a good day.”
- He closes the door and I watch him walk in.
Something is different about this day. Driving away I felt a familiar twinge in my stomach and a tear rolled down my cheek. I immediately called my best friend and said: This is his last day of middle school! Four more years then college!”
Being a mom of a toddler in daycare and a first grader she completely understood my panic. At work I shared my morning with a colleague who has four school-age children all under the age of nine. I expected empathy. Instead I was a little dismayed when her response was: I don’t know why parents cry dropping off their kids. She added that she thought it is a normal part of development. They can’t stay babies forever; they have to grow up. Why be sad that your kid is moving to the next phase? Thus, began the debate.
To Cry or Not to Cry
My argument was that it’s absolutely healthy for parents to have an emotional response as their children progress through the various stages of development. Parents aren’t sad their children are growing up. Instead it’s a longing for the days when their sweet baby nestled his or her head under their chin to settle down for a nap. There is an awareness that those moments are gone.
Neither is it a desire of the parents to keep children dependent upon them to fill some void. Rather they are aware these milestones signify the next step towards independence, going off to college, ultimately leaving home, marrying, and starting a family of their own.
My coworker’s argument was that parents just need to get over it. Our children will grow up, and it’s normal. Crying and sadness signifies something is wrong with the parent. I considered her argument and pondered it for awhile. I told some friends about the debate, and to my surprise, a few agreed with her: There isn’t a need for crying when dropping off your kids or when they reach other milestones. One friend who agreed with me said those who don’t feel any emotion must not care about their children as much. She couldn’t understand how a parent, especially a mom, wouldn’t be moved. I whole heartedly disagree with that sentiment. We are each entitled to our own emotional responses without the judgement of others. One parent’s emotion over a moment doesn’t equate to a greater love and commitment to their child. Similarly, less emotion from a parent doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care.
A few weeks ago I was reminded of this hot-button issue. My 14 year old was preparing for his first overnight, out-of-state trip without me or his father. As we drove to the drop-off point I reassured myself over and over that he would be okay.
Noticing my weariness he even offered consolation: Momma stop worrying. I’ll be okay.
The truth is I knew he’d be fine. He was going with an amazing organization to a youth retreat staffed by caring professionals. This would be a fun time for him and an opportunity to make some new friends — friends he would be starting high school with in just a matter of weeks. And there it was, the real issue: I was (again) emotionally responding to a milestone. The sweet little boy who used to snuggle under my arm as I read his bedtime story would be entering high school in a few weeks. Gone were the days of us doing everything together. He was gaining his independence. As quickly as summer passes, so would the next four years. My time with him in our house talking at the dinner table, saying good night, family devotional time, preparing snacks for his buddies playing basketball in our driveway, and movie nights were coming to an end. The end of an era.
The new school year is now here. I’ll pull in to the drop-off line trying hard not to cry. He’ll anxiously await his turn to get out. I’ll pull away knowing the next big drop off will be to college. And without shame I’ll allow myself to experience the joy of seeing him transition into a responsible young man, and the joy reminiscing about his first step. If tears should fall I’ll be prepared with a box of Kleenex in my front seat and my best friend on speed dial.