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School's In, For Toddler and Daddy Both

On the first day of school, our Stay-at-Home Dad realizes he has a lot to learn too.

It's supposed to be my morning free, but I'm a ball of nerves sitting in Tillie's Cafe – armpits drenched in sweat, stomach rumbling, eyes ping-ponging from my cellphone to the door, both feet en pointe, ready to bolt at the slightest notice. I'm sure it's plain to everyone that I just left my son at preschool for the first time.

I should say that I just left the tot at “preschool alternative.” I've yet to figure out the distinction between a good daycare, a preschool, and a preschool alternative program as they pertain to toddlers, aside from cost and tone. In our case, we went with a yoga-centric program that calls itself alternative – a term my wife and I both gravitate toward (perhaps because it harkens back to our teenage days).

I didn't anticipate sending our son to any kind of program. A year ago, I wrote about my disdain for the trend of school for babies and toddlers in a piece on The Huffington Post – In Defense of Childhood: Let Kids Be Kids. My son's all too constant companionship changed my mind. He rarely ventures out from under the watchful eye of me and my wife even when sleeping. He wakes in terror without somebody in bed next to him. Unless my wife, usually the one who winds him down in an hour-plus procedure, sneaks away for a couple hours of grownup time after he nods off, he's with a parent 24/7. And as readers of this column know, he has ways of demanding our attention when we're together.

Which is why after considering hiring a babysitter for a few hours a week, we decided to enroll him in a program where he'll be supervised by caring adults, but be part of a group. We hope a taste of independent time will help him learn to play more on his own and comfort himself before he escalates to freak out mode.

I know, he's a toddler. Constant attention comes with the territory. But trust me, when you can't even take a minute to use the bathroom without bringing on a destructive tantrum – even if he's watching television, with no real need for your physical presence next to him – a smidge more independence would be helpful – no, necessary – for this stay-at-home dad to maintain sanity.

You would think I'd meet the first day of school with excitement instead of panic. But though my son says, “School – Bye bye, mommy. Bye bye, Daddy,” as if he's ready to just jump in, he also greeted his teacher with a growl a few days before the program began. Afterward, when I asked him how going to school made him feel, he said “nervous.” 

That makes two of us, I thought.

My mind ran through scenarios in which he banged his head against the wall crying for mommy and daddy, or writhed out of the arms of his teacher and onto his head, or even mauled someone. I envisioned a toddler sized Hanibal Lector biting the ear off of his hapless guard, only in this case it would be a young woman in bare feet and yoga stretch pants. Ohm shanti only goes so far in calming the beast inside my son – believe me, I know. I've tried chanting in the face of his outbursts, only to find my ohms change to ows.

In the hours leading up to school, my worst fears materialized as he peed his pants and then strewed shoes all over the foyer when I moved to change him. I had one of those, “I'm not cut out for this work” moments, only to find a short while later, pride welling up as the tot loaded his stroller with books and then climbed in, telling me he was ready to go.

Once there, he took to the space quickly and began exploring their toy selection. I stayed a few feet behind him when he needed to check in with me as usual, until I noticed that only me and one other daddy remained. “I've never left him before, ever,” I said to his teacher.

By which I meant, I've never left him with a stranger in a strange (if lovely) place. 

“What should I do?” I asked her.

She noticed when a stacking toy captured his attention and told me to sneak out, and I did, feeling horrible. My wife and I always like to say goodbye, to let him know we're going. Though this brings tears and upset feelings, it feels more honest and direct to tell him we're leaving rather than slip away silently.

Sure enough, as I neared the door, I heard him calling, “Daddy? Daddy? Mommy?” I left before I weakened and ran back to his sides, taking my jittery nerves out for coffee that of course didn't calm me.

I'd like to say that all my worry was for naught and in a way, it was. The same kid came back to me – but he came back forty-five minutes early. His teachers said he cried off and on, and eventually they determined him upset enough to call me. He met me at the door with tired, sad eyes, and gave me a grin of relief.

But, not long after coming home, he returned to normal – demanding television during lunch, fighting nap with all the strength and fury of a feral cat. Same old, same old.

Still, I have hope. He told me about snack and singing the ABCs, and how he shared his name at circle. He claimed to like his teacher. He said he wanted to go back next week. A revelation that, whether honest or not – like all toddlers, his desires change with the wind – had me breathing a sigh of relief. He doesn't hate school or associate it with terror. Quite the contrary, it seems that he wants to like it.

It's just going to take some getting used to, him spending some of his life apart from us and us trusting that he'll be okay to do so. I hope one day he'll greet his teachers with a smile and I'll spend some productive time away from him, instead of fretting the entire morning about how he's doing.

It's hard when the kid's so little and not yet in full command of language, his body or emotions. We talk about kids growing up faster these days, but how about the parents having to deal with so many changes on such a speedy timetable?

I have a feeling we're all going to be learning a lot this fall.

David Zweig September 21, 2011 at 08:38 PM
"only to find my ohms change to ows" Ha - good one, Brian. As you know, I share your pre-pre-school/twos-program/alt preschool anxieties with my little one.
Robin September 22, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Right there with you! We started preschool also with our daughter (although drop-off starts next week). I hope that things continue to improve with your son. Also, agree about the timetable thing..there's something about this age..it just seems to be that there are a lot of transitions going on..more so than before. Many of us are putting our kids in school, there's potty-training, big-kid beds, etc. etc. It's a lot of get a handle on. The transitions are hard for everyone, I think.

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