An Anxious Mom’s Guide to Surviving the First Day of School
Sweaty palms. Racing heart. Bad dreams. Shaking hands. This was my reality as I woke up the day of my son’s first day of school last year. Funny thing is, it wasn’t his *first* First Day of School but my body and mind didn’t seem to care. He was starting 1st grade and since he’d been in preschool for three years, this was technically his FIFTH first day of school and I was as much a wreck as I was on that very first one.
As an always-slightly-anxious mom, worry is a part of my reality at all times. I worry about my son running and falling down and hitting his head. I worry about a bully at school pushing him or making him cry. I worry that friends won’t include him or that his teacher won’t give him the attention he needs. I worry, in short, about everything someone could conceivably worry about and then I crank it up to about eleven and drive myself crazy.
I cried on the first day of preschool. He literally turned three years old the day before and I had never left him with anyone other than his grandmas. I was worried he’d wander out of the room and somehow make it outside and get lost. I worried he’d have an accident at school and the kids would laugh at him. I worried that he would miss me and cry and get embarrassed. I worried the teachers or the kids wouldn’t be kind to him. As I said goodbye to him on that autumn day, I tried to soak in his face, the expression (was he excited, indifferent, happy?) and the smell of his head as I kissed him goodbye.
I knew I had to leave, but I peeked back around the door frame and watched him for what felt like an eternity as he moved about the room during choice time. His teacher glanced up and saw me creeping around the door and mouthed, “He’s going to be fine”. She’d seen it all before….the nervous parents wishing they could just scoop their child up and run to the car. That’s how I felt that day. I didn’t want to leave but I wanted to leave…with him. I didn’t want this. Whose idea was this anyway?
As I walked away from the classroom door, hot tears welled up in my eyes. I had to make it to the car. “I just have to make it to the car.” I kept repeating that to myself as I walked toward the door and I hoped no one would see my eyes full of tears ready to explode. When I opened the door the cool fall air hit my face and I knew I’d created a separation between myself and my son. That door was going to close behind me and he’d be left there. I walked quickly to the car, the tears already spilling down my face and hitting my coat. I just wanted to get in the car and explode. So I did. I let out a cry I hadn’t felt in months. Not since the day we heard the words, “red flags for autism” from his in-home speech therapist.
I started the car but didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t go home. That was too far from him. So I drove around the tree-lined streets in the school’s neighborhood and cried. And cried. And cried. I stayed on roads I knew well, since I had to navigate with eyes full of tears. For fifteen solid minutes, I drove around and around the school’s neighborhood and let out every tear I had left.
Why am I telling you this?
So if you’re an anxious parent, why do you need to hear this? Why would I put you through this? First, to make sure you know that you’re normal. Crying and anxiety aren’t things to be ashamed of. But also because it got better. I didn’t always cry. I didn’t always feel like a part of my heart was left behind in the classroom. I always missed him….don’t get me wrong. That has never has changed even five years into this whole school thing. I always wonder what he’s doing and if he’s okay. I always take a mental picture of him as he hops out of the car on his own and waves goodbye. It’s always a bittersweet feeling of knowing he’s where he should be, doing what he should do….but without me.
But that first day….it’s always an anxious time for me. No matter the grade, the anxiety sets in and I know I need to ride it out. I need to get to the end of that first day of school and ask, “So what did you do in school today?” and then I feel the pressure on my mind release. I do still cry on the first day of school. I also cry on the last day. I’ll cry this year because I won’t be able to call him a first grader anymore. “Second grader” sounds so old to me. The time is speeding by and I feel like I need to hang on tight to anything that makes him little. But first days are hard….so here’s what works for me:
1. Make the day easy.
Do all the hard stuff the night before. Get all of the clothes, socks, shoes, jackets and everything ready to go for yourself and your kids. Make as much of their lunch you can the night before if they’re bringing it. Fill that water bottle. Literally make a “house escape plan” so you have the time to move through your morning without added stress. You don’t need more stress, Mama.
2. Take a lot of pictures. TONS.
There’s something about seeing that smiling face on my phone screen as I take a million pictures that puts me at ease. Seeing him happy, posing with his backpack and showing off his lunchbag makes me take a moment to experience it all from his point of view. He’s happy and excited. I should be too.
3. Email the teacher before school starts.
A few days before school begins, send an email to the teacher and introduce yourself and your child. Nothing long and rambling, just a couple of paragraphs so she knows who your child is, some little quirks about him or her and things he or she likes. There’s something about getting a reply back from a new teacher that puts my mind at ease. Like I’ve given her the Cliff’s Notes to my child and she’ll be ready to befriend him more quickly. It makes a world of difference.
4. Offer to volunteer in the classroom.
If you have the flexibility to do so, volunteering in the class is a wonderful way to ease back-to-school anxiety. Seeing your child in their school element and how they are capable and adjusting makes a huge difference. Becoming a parent volunteer when my son was in Kindergarten gave me a new insight into my son and allowed me to see that not only was he doing fine, but (to be honest) doing better than some of the kids who didn’t have as many challenges as he did. That felt comforting to know that he was just one of the kids.
5. Give yourself some time.
If you have the ability to do a little something for yourself on the first day, do it. Even if you need a longer break at work or even if your littles have to tag along if you’re at home. Maybe plan a lunch out with a friend or neighbor going through the same thing? Or ask Grandma to visit for the day so you have an extra hand at home and a shoulder to cry on if needed? Maybe indulge in something delicious during nap time and watch something you normally wouldn’t during a busy day. Just let yourself ease into the day and ease right back out.
Last year, when my son started first grade, it was the first time I was ever required to drop him off in front of the school to walk in alone. For the previous four years, I was able to walk in with him and sit in a waiting area with him and the other parents until school began. I wasn’t prepared. I drove up in the drop-off line and without even having time to process it, I let him out on the curb. I immediately regretted it. He waved and happily walked off to the door but all I could think of was, “I just left my child on a curb. I just left my child ON A CURB!” I was pressured by all of the other cars waiting so I drove off and my heart raced. What if he couldn’t find his classroom? What if he wandered outside? I nearly turned around but didn’t. I drove until I reached my sanctuary where I could process what happened:
I called his teacher and emailed her. “Did he make it okay?” She picked up the phone and said, “Yep, he’s right here and he’s doing just fine!” So I wandered Target….alone (heavenly) and enjoyed my coffee drink. It was a small thing, but it made a big difference on that first day.
6. Remind yourself that you’re strong….and so is your child.
Whenever you feel that anxious feeling creeping up on you, remember that you handled the first day of school as a child and so will your child. You survived it. You got through and probably had the time of your life! Your parents made it through too! Each time you go through this, you’ll get stronger. It’s like a muscle that needs to be strengthened. If you’re like me, you’ll probably always feel first day anxiety but with the right tools and strategies to manage it, you’ll probably find you recover a little faster each year.
How do you manage your own “back to school jitters”? Do you have something that works for you?
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