When Back To School isn’t what we imagined
- 18 August, 2020
My last baby is starting school next week, and as we dive into this latest round of “the last of the firsts”, my emotions are bubbling up and spilling out of my fingertips. I feel the weight of the importance of this moment, the bitter-sweetness of something that will never come again. I feel her excitement and her pride, almost as intense as my own, and I feel the space widening painfully between us as I pull back one more step to make room for her ever-spreading wings.
And then, for me, there’s the other feeling. The one that lies dormant until it doesn’t – the mother’s guilt that uncoils inside me whenever we approach big milestones like this one.
It’s the certainty that I have robbed her of something.
Because at this important time in her development, when she should be focusing on making friends and asserting her enormous personality and asking questions and adoring her first ever school teacher, it’s all happening for her in a foreign language. She will be going to a completely French school and instead of letting her character shine out, I worry she will be muted, scrambling to understand and searching for her voice.
In this expat life of ours, my girl’s experience will not be like the others. It will not be what it should be.
In the dark middle of the night, this guilt keeps me company, and I lie awake staring at the ceiling, thinking of the things she has already lost without realising it – all because of the decisions her parents have made for her life. I think about what could have been if things were different. I think how cruelly I’ve robbed her.
Still, the daylight comes and we shop for the art apron and the indoor shoes. We pull down her shiny new backpack with her name embroidered on the front, which has been lying on the top shelf waiting for this day, and we fill it with the things the school letter tells us she’ll need. She tries it on and it dwarfs her tiny body, and she does a little twirl then places it carefully next to her doll house, ready and waiting for the big day. Last night as I put her to bed she looked over at that backpack sitting there expectantly, and she said to me earnestly, in her most serious four-year-old voice, “Mama, I feel very grown up.”
And my heart contracted so much I didn’t trust myself to speak for a moment.
I lay down with my baby and I told her that she is very grown up. I told her how proud I am of her and how lucky I feel to have spent this last summer of her babyhood with her and her sister, and what adventures are waiting for her. And as I spoke I felt the passage of time slipping excruciatingly by, as it always does.
And then, as I switched out her light and left her door cracked open just the right amount, I thought about how, just a few short months ago in this very strange year, we didn’t know if this day would come. We didn’t know when schools might open again, and if this first day of school would even happen. For many of our friends around the world, it’s still uncertain.
In 2020 everybody is being robbed of something, and although that is a horrible truth, it also makes me feel less alone.
It makes the uncoiling monster of guilt in my gut seem less powerful, and it makes the experience my littlest love is about to go through less “other” and more just, well, “hers”.
When I think about what I’m grieving for her – what it is I feel she has lost before she even starts – I realise it’s my vision for her school experience: the one of my own childhood. I long for a repetition of what I had, what I know. But – no matter where in the world we are – none of us will have that.
Because in 2020 – even in English – it would have been far from perfect.
The truth is, right now so many of us are grieving as the new school year starts – we’re grieving that milestones are not what we imagined, that grandparents can’t be there to share the day, that classrooms are divided, hugs prohibited and – in some places – national lockdowns will continue to recur unpredictably and disrupt the momentum of the school year. We’re all navigating the curve balls 2020 has thrown at us the best we can – pragmatic as we can be, even as we long for what might have been.
So while I pick up the toys on the living rug and wonder what might have been for my daughter, I also think about the as-yet invisible gains she will reap from this coming season. I think about her becoming bilingual. I imagine the friendships in her near future that will be forged in the fire of non-verbal communication, providing the impetus for her to learn faster. I think about the resilience that will grow deep in her soul as she trips and stumbles her way through the next few months, and the feeling she will have at the other side of this year as she stands tall in the knowledge she can do hard things.
I know that when I look back on these days of feeling like I’ve robbed her of what was rightly hers, I’ll realise that in truth this experience will be a gift she couldn’t have received any other way. And I think maybe – if we look at the coming school year in this way – we’d all feel a little bit better.
I can’t magic my baby’s school experience into what I think it should be or what I wish it was. But it will be her own, and all I can do is honour that and stand in it with her, holding her little hand in mine.