This essay was published in the Johns Hopkins Mass Ave Review many years ago. I’m posting a shortened version today because it’s the first day of school and in my current empty nest life, it still feels right.
Through the month of August, I listened to moms count down to the first day of school. They anticipated glorious freedom. But when I dropped off Annie for her first day of preschool, I felt an odd sense of loss that turned into a nagging worry over everything from whether I researched the school well enough to whether she would remember how to unhook her overalls to go to the bathroom.
When we pulled up to the “parent drop-off” curb, Miss Vivian and Miss Sandy greeted us. Annie, my petite, blue-eyed blonde, climbed out of the van, confidently took Miss Sandy’s hand and walked away, never looking back. She dragged her bright red Trinity Preschool book bag behind her until she disappeared through the door.
Since I experienced this separation with Sara, I felt like a seasoned mother. I knew Annie’s day would be filled with coloring, playing, and mastering essential skills like cutting with small scissors. Still I worried.
I followed the other vans out of the parking lot and headed to an aerobics class by myself for the first time in five years. Before class started, I heard other moms talk about their newfound freedom. One woman said, “this is payback time.” She finally had plans to do her things instead of their things.
I politely smiled, but I didn’t share their feelings. I missed my kids. For the rest of the morning, I wondered if I would ever relate to their feelings of emancipation. I felt lonely. While I watched the clock for “pick-up” time, I perused my old journals and came across one of my favorite lines from Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” when the character Pearl summarizes her family life, and says, “It’s the closeness that does you in.” My closeness to Annie was doing me in. I felt the natural tension of that closeness during that brief separation.
While I only intended preschool as a way to help her grow, that tiny act of letting go tapped a fear in me that made me feel like I was losing a vital emotional and physical connection to her. On a smaller scale, it felt like when I turned away from my dad’s burial plot and went home without him. Our closeness to the people we love produces rich and complicated ties.
Before I became a mother, I trivialized “maternal instincts.” While I was pregnant with Sara I wondered how and when those powerful instincts would kick in. When she was born I was so relieved to hear her healthy cry and know she was a perfectly formed infant, I forgot about how I was supposed to feel. It was one of those brilliant moments when you’re so consumed by the reality of your experience that you can’t thing of anything else. There was no vacancy in my mind or heart for anything except what was happening at that precise moment. An intense love completely enveloped me. I felt like my heart surfaced and landed on top of my chest as I absorbed the reality that she was my child.
Some moments in life surprise us by knocking our props out from under us. Having children did that to me. When I held them for the first time I couldn’t comprehend what I had experienced.
I brought life into the world.
The miracle overwhelmed me. I couldn’t believe these two very real, physical, living extensions of my husband, God, and me.
By some grand design they ended up in my arms as these glorious eternal spirits in human forms that I could touch, love, and nurture.
Few moments in life pull our hearts right up out of us like having children. But when they do, they make us feel like the Velveteen Rabbit in the classic children’s book by Margery Williams. The book, “The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real, is a timeless story of a stuffed rabbit who wanted to know what it would be like to be real.
As much as we try to control our lives and feelings, some rare and indescribable experiences catch us by complete surprise with their strength and power.
They are the experiences that make us real.
On some level, we all want to be like the rabbit and know how it “real” feels, but we don’t want any pain in the process. We can’t experience intense love without a little pain because love like everything else has a natural ebb and flow. If we give everything to someone or something, we have to accept the inevitable pain that will come when there is separation, even if the distance is something as small and innocent as preschool.
In the end, my ambivalence about leaving Annie for a few hours of preschool amounted to nothing more than a miniature lesson of my reality. She is one of the people in my life that make me real. Just as I can’t short-circuit my heart and worry less about her, I can’t expect to find a short-cut through the other more painful parts of life either, grieving a bigger loss. Both experiences take sure-fire aim at your heart and there is no armor to protect you from how it feels. If you believe the Velveteen Rabbit, there is no other way to become real, and once that happens, we have to brace ourselves for a closeness that can do us in.