starting over

Today my oldest child started Kindergarten -- but I can't even talk about that yet. I'm still trying to keep my mind focused on how adorable he looked at his table, nametag around his neck, coloring pumpkins with the fresh crayons tucked inside his little pencil case. The thoughts of him eating lunch in a big cafeteria or walking to and from specials inside a big elementary school are too scary, so I'm trying to keep them at bay. Anyway, like I was saying. Today my oldest child started Kindergarten. I swear he was born yesterday, but in actuality he is six years old. He has two adult teeth already and he asks for privacy in the bathroom and he can read third grade level chapter books on his own, but he still climbs into my lap when he needs to feel safe and he still needs me to kiss his boo-boos when he hurts himself and in so many ways, he is still my little baby. Of course, I also have an actual baby who is still getting in her first teeth and learning the ropes of the world, like not to pick things up off the floor and stick them into your mouth. She still requires a nap on most days and still falls if she walks too quickly and she's still learning to communicate using words. After school drop off this morning, I took my baby to the mall to walk the interior perimeter as I used to do when her big brother was an infant and I didn't know anybody. It was exercise and it was air-conditioned and no one would talk to me, because I was one "hello, how are you?" away from losing my mind. (Kindergarten hurts, guys. It just does.)

Sometimes people say that I'm starting over. That Ethan goes off to school and instead of truly moving myself into this next phase of life, I instead move myself right back to square one. Diapers and feeding schedules and all of the chaos that accompanies a baby-baby, not just a Kindergarten-baby. Is it hard to move back to packing diaper bags and packing snacks and making sure the minivan is equipped with a baby carrier or stroller at all times? Is it hard to give up spontaneity for a nap? Well, yes. But harder yet is the thought of not having it at all. Any of it.

There was a great deal of time when I thought that I would never get to hold a baby of my own again. There was a large chunk of time when I thought that the two children I would have to parent would be my living one and my dead one; parenting one with attention and affection, and the other with memory and heartbreak. While my days of belly bumpdates and fetus-to-fruit comparisons died with Wylie, I would in fact get to be a parent again. It would take fight and grit and strength that I dug out of my brokenness, but it would happen nonetheless. Holding my daughter in my arms for the first time was magic, but seeing Ethan smile as he held her in his arms for the first time was vindication. It was joy again, rising up from the dead and pressing the resume button on a life that felt painfully paused. I am grateful for every minute of it. I'm grateful that I showed up to Kindergarten drop-off with a stroller in tow and smashed-up sandwich on my shirt. I'm grateful that I am waiting out naptime writing this, a load of wash in the washing machine and tonight's dinner already in the oven, and when I press publish I will return to creating tot school curriculum just like I used to do during naptimes five years ago. I'm grateful for all of it because it's real life and messiness and goodness and stepping-on-yucky-fruit after feeling so numb for so long.

I couldn't imagine starting over, either. I couldn't imagine dusting myself off and starting over in an entirely different life than the one I thought I knew for 30 years. But thankfully I don't have to. I just got to press play after a little pause.

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In the six years I've been a parent, I've always believed in following the child. Attachment is often frowned upon, although in six years I've grown used to people's eyerolls when I say Ethan hasn't been left with a sitter or that I still lay with him until he falls asleep at night. I'm used to the way people like to lecture me that I coddle him or spoil him and need to "cut the cord." I've always believed that he would tell me when he was ready to seek out a little more independence and that's been true, as he always has. Still, independence burns at my heart despite me knowing it's on his terms and happening naturally (and confidently) thanks to our attached bond.

I remember the exhausting days when he refused to detach himself from my leg or wouldn't so much as look at other children who approached him on the playground. I blinked and he became the child surrounded by a crowd of eight other children on the school playground, holding hands and laughing and immersed in a game that they created together. Before bedtime, we talk about things that made us proud or made our hearts feel good (and sad, and mad, and all the other range of emotions one can feel in a day). The other night, he remarked that he felt "proud to be Ethan" and everything in me was overcome with peace. I remember just a few short months ago when he would lament how he was terrified no one would like him or would hide the silly riddles and big thoughts that his mind would think up. Now he runs up to children at the park and asks them if they want to hear a joke and, despite stumbling over the punchline, laughs through the entire delivery. The tremendous growth and the strides he has made in finding himself have made me feel peaceful and proud and have also made me realize the intricacy of motherhood at a level I hadn't before.

But it also hurts. Because this weekend, he went into the kitchen and made both of us lunch. He carried the clothing from the dryer to the couch and "folded" the towels before putting them into the linen closet. He asked for privacy as he washed up before bed and reemerged in his pajamas without even needing me to lay them out for him onto the bed. He turned down a trip to the museum on the start of his last week of summer to instead spend a day at his gym camp.

And these are good things. They are wonderful things because he has found his confidence and himself and he is growing! He is thriving! He is becoming the child he is meant to be at his own pace. He is excited for the future and letting me know that he is ready for more independence now, at age six. These are wonderful things! And they are the outcome I hoped for when I first cradled his newborn body in my arms and promised him I'd always be here, that I'd always be by his side, that we would nurture attachment and my job as his mother would be to follow his lead. But they still hurt because in all the ways he is ready, I am not ready.

I am not ready to drop my oldest child at Kindergarten despite the fact he is eager to see his classroom and meet his classmates, who he refers to as "my new friends." I am not ready to kiss him goodbye and watch him, backpack strapped to his back, walk into a classroom in elementary school. But he is, which he lets me know each day, multiple times a day, as he opens his organizer bins and double (triple, quadruple) checks that he has socks or clean underwear ready to go for his carefully planned out first day outfit. I am not ready for him to turn 7, or 8, or 17 and drive a car or have his heart broken or any of the other milestones that are to come. But I was not ready for him to turn 2, or 3, or 6, and still he does and still I follow him, letting him know I'm here as he should need me. Because that's my job, in all of its glory and sadness, and there is no better job in the world than to be his mommy.

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almost but not quite yet kindergarten

Every so often, I make a promise to myself to write more. I don't feel quite like myself in times when I don't write, but it gets complicated. Sometimes it's weird knowing my words are read by people I actually have to see in every day life (and when they don't like what I say, I get the awkward grocery store cold shoulder) -- or by people whose children my kids have a desire to play with. As Ethan gets older, I have to protect his privacy more than in the good old days of his tot schooling and potty training when his milestones were cute and universally understood by new parents everywhere. He is my number one support system when it comes to writing ("you should write books about Carmen and I, mommy") but he's also six. Still, writing gives me this feeling of peace that is unattainable anywhere else. I joined a boot camp, I've been slowly committing to decorating rooms in my house and staying on top of my laundry, but nothing compares to putting words and feelings down. There are just so many big feelings here, dying to come out.

Summer is basically over. I'm taking this extra hard because Ethan starts Kindergarten soon and I'm pretty lousy at changes in routine. I bought Carmen a shirt that says "say yes to new adventures" and cursed myself out under my breath as I tossed it in the cart because hello, I'm a hypocrite. New adventures are terrifying and scary and should be avoided at all costs by embracing sameness and hiding under the covers to avoid reality. Just me? Ethan is pretty stoked about Kindergarten and doesn't really seem nervous whereas I wake up at three in the morning having panic attacks about having to send my precious baby to a gigantic, actual elementary school. There are things that I don't like to admit to myself, and one of those is that unlike me, Ethan loves the idea of a class and being a part of a team. He's also pretty good about giving things an honest try, which is a quality I severely lack. So far his only apprehension has been that PE is a part of the curriculum (see? He is my child!) but he's even accepted that he may enjoy it after all.

Today, I cleaned out the drawers in a filing cabinet that has been stuck in a corner of our tot school classroom since we began, when Ethan was just 16 months old. I spent an hour bawling my eyes out as I combed through the artwork and projects that we had spent five years making. Ethan loved sitting with me and going through his old drawings and projects but "I'm not sure what you're crying about, mommy. I'll still make art at Kindergarten and when I get home, too." I try to explain to him the depths of a mother's love and pride and the bittersweet feeling that is a child growing up and becoming more independent, but he's six and so he doesn't understand. He hugs me and assures me that if I want to make him lessons and trays, he will humor me and do them so I don't have to cry.

I'm a little bit of a mess. That's nothing new. Time hasn't really made me bolder but regardless, children get older and I'm doing my best to put on a brave face and be convincing in my cheering from the sidelines.

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