There are few things more hopeful and deluded than a mom at the beginning of the school year. I think back to the beginning of school last year and just laugh.
I was planning the lunches I would pack that would make the Food Pyramid look like a Krystal Combo Meal. I knew when all the upcoming birthday parties were so I could plan carpools, I already had the gifts purchased with extras in the ‘Shoot—there’s a party today, we need a gift’ shelf in my closet that I, at least, knew I would need eventually.
My planner was a rainbow of color-coded organizational beauty, as if this would save us. I would set a solid schedule for after school that would include a nutritious snack to be enjoyed while they told me about their day. They would do their homework in the dining room, away from the lure of the T.V. After homework, they would play outside with their friends and abide by the ‘No playing inside while your brother is napping’ rule. I would cook supper while they played and the baby napped. We would eat at the table as a family and then review spelling words or math facts. A drama-free bath time would follow and everyone would be read to for at least 20 minutes before bed (please note, with four kids that’s 80 minutes of reading before bed). I was operating in a Donna Reed Show fantasy.
While flying high on First Day of School Fantasies, I offered to do special hairstyles the first morning of school. ‘Special’ means anything other than the ponytail we usually only have time for. I had the ‘First Day of School’ signs made for taking pictures by the front door. And I did get my pictures; the kids looking so bright and shiny that it made me think, “I could fix my lipstick in the reflection on them.” I mean—I actually had on lipstick before they left for school because this was the first day of a newly-on-top-of-it me that would actually shower and dress before they left for school. How precious.
My fantasy world lasted seven hours.
I had the nutritious after school snack (apple slices arranged in a starburst pattern around a dollop of organic peanut butter) ready for them when they walked in the door. Most of them anyway.
Right about the time I realized there were only two tired, hungry children flinging backpacks and shedding lunch boxes in a treasure hunt trail across my house—my phone rang. ‘Lower School Office’ it read. One Quinn got left at school, and even though I didn’t drive carpool that day—it was completely my fault.
The reasons why it’s my fault are complex and incredibly boring (unless you’re into carpool geometry) so I won’t bore you with the details but trust me when I say I am not falling on this sword out of unnecessary guilty—I just screwed up.
I answer the call from school and hear a sobbing child saying, “Nobody came to get’me!’
Man. I was so close to a full day of really nailing motherhood.
I left my oldest in charge of one awake sister and one sleeping brother and made joggers and squirrels nervous as I raced to the school. Now, before somebody calls Child Protective Services on me for leaving the fourth grader in charge—I live five minutes from school (more like two and half that day) and my mom lives around the corner. Pretend it’s 1989 if you’re still worried about my children’s welfare—nobody batted an eye at fourth graders babysitting a couple of toddlers and a set of newborn twins alone in 1989 and don’t even try to deny it.
I get to the office where my sad girl has crumpled into a heap in a chair like an abandoned puppy on the side of the road. She’s still hiccupping occasionally and the hair that’s fallen from her special first day of school styling is damp with tears. She sees me and sobs, “I didn’t think you were coming back.” Now you can call Child Protective Services, or have somebody pull my Mom Card. Because I have not only been responsible for my child being left at school (which, honestly, show me a mom who hasn’t at least once), but even after all the years of being mine she doubted that I would come back for her. This broke me.
Had this happened to my oldest child, the phone call would gone like this, “Mama, you forgot me at school. Now you have to take me for a sno-cone—you owe me.” She would have told everyone that her mama left her at school and reveled in the telling.
But not this kiddo. My giver of the tightest hugs who needs to be touching me if she’s in the same room. My girl whose eyes disappear when she smiles because she smiles with her whole face, and now that face was tear-streaked and the chin she got from me was just a-quivering.
I’m more like my oldest, and was a little thrown by the level of trauma I was witnessing on the way to the car. She was never left alone; the teachers took her from carpool line to the office where she called me and I answered. But I was operating from a place of adult logic that she does not yet inhabit. So, I tried to say all the things that seemed right at the moment, that I would be upset too and she must have felt scared and sad and I’m so, so sorry. Then I made her look at me when I said, “I will ALWAYS come back for you. I’ll probably mess up again and one day you will mess up, too, but I’ll still come back for you—always.” And then, just for good measure, I told her she could have anything she wanted for her after-school snack.
Over the past eight years of carpooling together, I’ve lost count of how many times my cousin and I have left a kid at school or circled back around upon remembering while only a block away. We have eight kids between us, they get picked up on five different schedules—don’t judge us until you’ve offered to take over a round or two. In all those carpool snafus, I don’t think there’s ever been crying before—most of the time they just thought we were late.
But this was the first day of school when emotions were high, nerves were jangling, brains were vibrating from the info-overload of a new teacher, new classmates, new schedule—and then her mama didn’t show up. She recovered quickly and wasted no time telling her sisters she got to eat anything she wanted because Mama forgot her at school, but she ended up picking the apples and peanut butter because that’s her favorite—thank you Jesus for small mercies.
She was fine. Nothing a little therapy in her 30s won’t fix, I’m sure. But that teary voice reminded me that while, to me, certain parts of my kids’ lives can feel like long, tedious to-do lists, things to check off, things to try and get handled so I can move on to the next one—these are big days to them.
For me, their first day of school was a mountain I had to climb, traversing Meet the Teacher Tea Parties, back to school haircuts, after school activities sign-ups, going through uniforms pondering whether a shirt is too short if it only shows their stomach when they raise both arms, is a skort too tight if they have to hike it up to run, replacing the sneakers whose soles flap when they walk, filling out one thousand forms (and trying to list the right birth date for the right kid on each, which is harder than you’d think), finding the lunch boxes, assessing the state of the backpacks, weaving intricate webs of carpools that put Charlotte to shame—it’s a lot.
It’s too easy to let the chore side of it all make me forget that the lives creating these to-do lists for me are their lives. They’re the big and small days that turn into the memories they’ll have forever. I remember my first days of school, but not a single errand that had to be run—my mom was doing all of that while I was banking the memories of who I got to sit by and whether my teacher seemed sweet or strict.
When my girl melted down over being left and told me what must have been the greatest fear in her seven-year-old heart, she reminded me that this was a big day for her. What felt like the finish line after a marathon for me was a day she was excited about and nervous about and on a high from and worn out by. Being left was just the spark needed to blow the lid off all those big feelings that I missed while trying to tackle the next task.
The to-do lists have to get done, the kids need shoes and the school needs medical release forms—I won’t ever pretend to enjoy all of that or feel guilty that I don’t. But maybe I’ll get better at remembering that the days that generate the longest lists for me are often the biggest memory-making days for my kids.
Maybe I’ll let them go back to school in worn out shoes if it means I have time to ask more questions, to find out what they’re scared of and excited about. I can buy the shoes after I drop them off; everybody knows taking your kids with you when shoe shopping is a horrible idea, anyway.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.