Preschool: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
By: Sheana Ochoa
My son started preschool last Wednesday. It wasn’t pretty. We entered the school and because I was concerned about him wetting his pants (my last two blogs were about my struggle with potty training), the first thing I did was show him the bathroom. Next we went to the cubby area where each kid has a shoe-sized plastic box for extra clothes. I showed him his extra underwear, flushable wipes for number two, and pull-ups to put on at naptime. I suddenly felt like I had given him too much responsibility at once. At home, we put his pull-ups on at naptime. I began second-guessing this whole preschool thing; I mean, he hasn’t even turned 3 yet. Still, we continued to the common room where about forty kids were finishing breakfast and waiting to be told where to go next. They knew the drill; it’s a year-round school, and most had already been enrolled in school for some time.
I introduced Noah to his teacher and when I went to say goodbye, he began to cry, imploring me not to leave him. I was not prepared. All the other kids entered the classroom as I was trying to say goodbye to Noah in the hallway.
He had been home the last month, mastering potty training. Prior to that he was enrolled in daycare for over a year, a small, family-run outfit with a one to four adult-to-child ratio. He was comfortable there, knew all the kids by name. I don’t know if taking a month off and staying at home helped him or hindered his transition into preschool.
An aide appeared at the door in the hall. I looked at her helplessly and asked if I should go. She nodded. Against all my motherly instinct, I wrenched my son’s small hands from my clothes, told him I loved him, that I would be back and I left. I felt guilty and helpless back in my car. Should I go back in? Wouldn’t that make it worse? How could I leave my son so terrified with complete strangers?
I was supposed to have coffee with a friend whom I called and she began to tell me how when her son went to preschool she did not leave. She told him she would never leave him and that she would stay there until he said it was okay for her to go. In other words, she let him find his independence and take control when he was ready. I had denied Noah the opportunity to find his comfortable levels of safety. I deprived him of feeling empowered by becoming ready to let me go. I was the one with all the control to come and go as I pleased. My friend said she had sat outside where her son could see her through a window. She read a book for three or four hours a day until he came to her at the end of the week and said, “Mom, you can go home.”
This rang true with me. I went home and called Echo Parenting where I was going to start taking parenting classes. They put me on with a child development specialist. I explained what had happened and she listened, giving me an earful of ideas and concepts I had not heard before: at 2 and 3, kids don’t understand the idea of “I’ll be back”; throwing Noah into a new environment is a huge change that he should be transitioned into in order to make him feel safe and build trust between him and me. She began talking about what they do in their parenting and one-on-one classes at the center and it all sounded smart and child-centered. She told me to call the school and tell them I wanted to stay with him and help him transition into this new world.
The principal actually answered the phone. She didn’t like the idea. She assured me that after ten minutes Noah was up and playing with the other kids (10 minutes!? He cried for 10 entire minutes?) She questioned how he would build a bond with the teacher if I were there. Other kids transitioned without their parents. She had arguments that intimidated me, but I stood my ground, fortified with the information the child specialist had given me. “I will let you stay for one week only,” she declared even though I knew I had the right to stay all day all year if I wanted. I didn’t counter her, but thanked her.
Meanwhile I had emailed my husband and told him the story. His response was that if the principal didn’t believe I needed to stay, and if Noah was fine after 10 minutes, I shouldn’t worry. I felt alone. Suddenly I felt I had to justify to my own husband my right to transition Noah into preschool.
That same night we had a play to attend. Now I was left with the dilemma of picking up Noah from preschool, and then dropping him off again with someone I know and trust, but that he doesn’t know very well. I decided if he didn’t want me to go, I would not leave him.
When we arrived, I told my friend about my day, thinking she would be an ally, but she happened to have taught preschool and believed it was best to drop off the kid and leave. Now my husband had the ally. I was left with this nagging intuition that I knew what was best for Noah, but without anyone to support me. Noah was fine so we went ahead to the play where we ran into another friend who had taught preschool. She also believed it was fine to just leave the kid without transitioning. I thought the world was suddenly conspiring against me. Was I making too big a deal out of this? All I had to do was remember the look of terror on my son’s face to remind myself I was not.
The next day I asked my husband to come with me to drop him off so he could see first hand how excruciating it was. Afterward, I sobbed uncontrollably for twenty minutes. I met with a friend later and when I mentioned my predicament he shared his story with his son. His wife had researched separation anxiety and the needs of their child’s developmental stage. She decided to stay with her son until he transitioned. My friend called it “developmental parenting”. Finally, I thought, an objective fellow parent. The next day I stayed with Noah.
The entire hour and half that I stayed, Noah was afraid I was going to leave him. Sometimes he felt safe and ventured off to explore the variety of things to do, but if I stood up from my seat, he was on me, whining: “Don’t go.” When we went outside to play he ran out to the jungle gym. I thought it was a good opportunity to ask him if I could leave. I told him I was going and he seemed okay with it. I kissed him and walked away. Just before I left the play yard, I heard him running and crying toward me, but it was too late. I had reentered the classroom and I felt that reappearing would create the same situation. The following day I stayed again, but not as long. He cried again when I left. I felt gridlocked. I was confused because Noah cried whether I stayed or not.
I asked my husband to stay with him the next day. He stayed, but again, Noah cried when he left. I didn’t know what was best for Noah. Should I stay or should I go? Since he cried either way, I thought perhaps I should let him go and trust his resilience. The next day he cried again when I left and it tore my heart out. How long would this go on?
Then I recalled when I first put him in daycare. I was recovering from a major Fibromyalgia flare and could not stay with him had I wanted to. My days were spent in bed resting up in order to take care of him at night. Every day for the first month of daycare, Noah cried when I dropped him off. A month! I don’t know how I did it then. Maybe my own health was too fragile to be affected or maybe I didn’t know what I do now about transitioning. I would not let this separation anxiety go on for an entire month, which meant I had to stay with Noah until he felt comfortable with letting me go. I was back at square one. I sat in my car, every ounce of me wanting to walk straight into that school and scoop my child up and bring him home, but I drove away.
On the sixth day of school, Noah assured me from his car seat that I could stay with him. I decided to play out what I thought he might be feeling. I said I didn’t know the kids and that was scary. He said, “not scary, Mommy.” I said I didn’t know the teachers and that was scary. Same response. So when I dropped him off I said hello to the other kids and I kissed Noah goodbye, intending to stay if he cried, but he didn’t. I wanted to jump for joy all the way back to my car.
I believe that if I hadn’t taken the time to help him through his first week of school, the crying would have continued for more weeks. Even though I didn’t stay with him from day one, I showed him he was important enough to take the time to put myself in his shoes, in a new environment with new people. Both Daddy and Mommy spent time with him in school, which although it was inconsistent, showed him that his feelings were important.
I learned that I had to honor my intuition even when the odds were stacked up against me. The most revealing lesson I discovered was how afraid I was to assert my rights as a mother, although I’ve never been afraid to assert my rights for myself.
Parenting doesn’t come naturally. I can defend myself as a woman, but because I’m new at being at mother, it is difficult to defend myself as a mother. Despite popular opinion, parents can draw boundaries and be models, but they shouldn’t try to “control” their kids in order to make them bend to their own agenda. There are tools to be used as in any profession to assure that you are doing the best job you can do. I intend to seek out these tools as often and as diligently as I can, based on the developmental stage my child is at. I intend to listen to him. If he needs me, I’ll be there to teach him that he doesn’t really “need” me until he believes it for himself. Kids don’t learn that by themselves. They internalize abandonment or distrust. I’d much rather have Noah learn through love and empathy how to self-regulate his emotional life in order to prepare him for the turbulent roads ahead.