It is the first day of school today and I have already cried. So has the brilliant radio broadcaster and author Sarah McDonald who writes about the stress of school, or rather sending her youngest child to school for the very first time:
I’m very teary at the moment. I choke up reading Enid Blyton books to my daughter, while watching television ads with my bloke and every time I even look at my son.
It’s a highly delicate emotional state similar to how I felt just after giving birth.
That’s probably because tomorrow I’m giving birth to my youngest child for the second time. My little boy – my baby – starts school and I am gripped by the contractions that are pushing him out into society; those surging waves of fear, pain, relief and joy. I’m trying not to call for drugs.
Don’t take the tears stuff the wrong way. I’m not sad that he’s starting school. I’m thrilled someone else will be responsible for him. I’m ecstatic that I’ll get more time to work. I’m excited he’s going to make new friends, discover the joy of reading, play great games and be a part of a wonderful community. The tears are of happiness.
But they’re also for gut-wrenching loss. From now on I won’t be the all-pervading influence and passion of his life. The love for a kindergarten teacher is powerful and I know she will be far more qualified, experienced and infinitely nicer than I am. But I’m jealous he’ll spend most of the day with a woman who couldn’t possibly love him like I do; who may not find him stunningly beautiful and hysterically funny; who doesn’t have heart supernovas when he puts his little hand in hers.
I have a touch of sorrow that my son is entering the first institution of many he’ll encounter in life. From now on he must fit into the system and join the mass of the mainstream. Soon he’ll be assessed, ranked, judged and assigned marks. For his own good, he’ll be part of a system that increasingly likes to test and rate and label – ‘gifted, talented, dyslexic, hyperactive, challenged’ etc. My son will have to negotiate a microcosm of society; a zoo where he’ll have to fit in, be cool, make friends and not loose them within the frenzied hive of the playground. He’ll have to wear a uniform, (including stupid shoes in summer heat), he’ll have to eat when he’s told, sit when he’s told, put his fingers on his lips and repress his rambunctiously annoying ways.
I stress for the stress he’ll feel. We all remember the first day of school and studies have proved the stress hormones cortisol is already raised months before and continues to remain high months after school begins. I don’t want to take on his pain, his worry and his fears. But I would if I could. The studies also show the kids are picking up on our stress so I’m hiding all this surging emotion as best I can.
I know the weeping I’ll also suppress as we say goodbye is not even all about him. Leaving him will bring back fragmented memories of not being as pretty as my best friend, about the boy with the dimples not wanting to sit with me, about never winning the running races. Of course I remember my love for the school, the innocent intimacy of my gang, the affection for my teacher and that will make me want to cry more.
Sending him also makes me confront my feelings about society. About how girls get Barbies and boys Ben 10, about fashions and fads, about valuing maths over art, about choosing religion over ethics; about the basic skills tests, the narrowing of the curriculum to achieve good marks, about coaching, after school activity competition and the Australian obsession with sport.
My vulnerable state comes also from my awareness that as my son works through the system his strengths and weaknesses will become apparent. Thereby exposing mine (my partner and I gave them to him in the DNA after all). Adults can hide behind the jobs we do. Writers don’t need maths, accountants don’t need creative writing skills, scientists don’t need to do art, computer programmers don’t do much public speaking. At school my child may reflect the deficiencies I’ve fled. He’ll also expose my strengths and weaknesses as a parent. When my daughter was in kindergarten one Mother made me feel abusive for not teaching my child to read and do addition before she started schools. Others may feel I don’t create enough routine at home, or discipline, or fruit.
I’m ecstatic that, for me, the first day of school is a coming out, a reclaiming of self, a beginning of a new future. Yet it’s confronting to not be so desperately needed. A friend of mine is so freaked out by what’s coming she’s considering having another child. She’s mourning the end of a sense of purpose and that feeling of being constantly wanted. Perhaps the start of school is also confronting because it reminds me I’m ageing. As he starts more independent living I equip him more for when I’m gone. Are the tears for my own mortality?
So after I wave goodbye, I don’t know whether I’ll cry or laugh, weep in a puddle or jump for joy. I expect it will be all those and more. But I’ll then try and drown that lump in my throat with a glass of good champagne at the pub. I imagine I’ll feel the surge of overwhelming love, loss, joy, worry, passion, fear, pride and soppiness that I felt on the night I first met him. And I’m thankful that, at least after this birth, I can shout for the drugs and buy a round of drinks for my fellow mothers.