On Becoming a Parent - A Preschool Teacher's ViewBefore moving to Duxbury last year, I was a preschool teacher in Washington DC. I fell in love with scores of children aged 2-5 years old. I'm impressed by how capable they are when you slow down and really watch them as they move through their day. For example, getting to know the new environment and people in their class at the beginning of the year. These are the primary challenges children face upfront starting school. Most of the 2 year-olds entering our program had never before been without their parents in a large group of children and strange adults. In the first week, parents themselves were often full of anxiety about leaving their children at school. Inevitably, during goodbyes there were tears in the eyes of some children, and of some parents.
As the teacher, I understood their fear of separation, and I knew that as soon as the parent left, the child would begin a process of settling in and discovering another world - one with a group of their peers and two more loving adults who would share in experiences of creativity and fascinating interactions. I knew the children were just about to embark on a very fun journey - one that they would soon look forward to joining again every morning. They were adding another dimension to their identity - gaining a sense of self in another supportive environment outside their homes - becoming more independent. All of which I am confident is a good thing. So while I sympathized with the scared child and guilty parent, I didn't totally get it. Not being a mom myself, I couldn't empathize with the all-consuming worry of being a parent, dropping her child off at school for the first time. We teachers would softly suggest that parents finish their goodbyes and go, assuring them their children would be alright, and that we would contact them if there was undue lingering sadness. We called this "ripping off the Bandaid". And it was always alright.
Some children needed more teacher snuggles than others. Some needed more time. But everyone came around to enjoying school, because it was a loving and fun-filled place, and because the children had within them the seeds necessary to flourish in a pre-kindergarten - curiosity, a desire to play with other children, trust, self-confidence, a sense of adventure and a drive to master new skills.
But now I am a mom, and no matter what I know as a teacher - it's hard to leave my child! Suddenly, I "appreciate" the sense of weight that comes with the responsibility of being someone's primary caregiver. From the moment my son was born, I jumped at his cries feeling disturbed that he was disturbed. The connection we shared, having been one being during pregnancy, and in many ways during the first months after birth, is difficult to describe. I suppose it's the thing referred to as "the mothering instinct' - the hard-wiring that ensures humans care for their young. To me, it feels like a perpetual state of love-flavored anxiety. Especially in the early months, when I was just getting to know my new baby, I was compelled through my days by a sense of need to care for his needs. There were joyful moments, but it often felt more like an act of duty to be up with him in the wee hours of the night when I was sore from feeding and holding him, and not knowing why he was still crying. And yet, I couldn't bear the thought of not answering when he cried. I remember when my mother-in-law had him at the family Thanksgiving party. He was crying after being passed around all the relatives, and she was going to take him into another room so I could finish eating. "Don't worry," she said, "I'm not bothered by his crying". "It's not you I'm worried about," I snapped, gulping down un-chewed mouthfuls of dry turkey. Was it him I was concerned for? Yes, of course, but it was
also me. I needed to respond to the urgent drive within me to comfort him. The emotions involved in being a parent are intense. The fact that's cliché doesn't make it easier to navigate your first time around.
Before I had a child, I knew I would get conflicting advice on how to parent. But I didn't know I'd feel so confused by it. It's amazing how being in the role of mother changes my perception - making it hard to stand back and take an objective view. There's what I want to happen (sleep), and what I don't want to happen (upset). And I don't always know what's the right thing to do, but I know what I don't want to do - whether or not is seems reasonable or practical. I struggle with this more than I thought I would. Even after listening to the advice and reading the books and choosing the strategies that make the most sense to me and our family - it can be a challenge to carry through and get relatives on-board, or even, especially, Baby himself. It all seemed so much clearer when I was a teacher. Then, for example, I knew crawling was important for brain development, and a few months of crawling helped children build neuropathways and connections around the brain, lending to hand-eye coordination, fine and gross motor skills, spacial awareness, independence, etc., etc. So, obviously, I decided I would "let" my baby crawl. And yet, I hadn't considered that my baby might prefer not to crawl, but instead be "walked" around by grownups holding him up by his hands so he could totter around on two unready feet. Or that our relatives would be all too happy to oblige him, and hurt when I'd ask them not to. I hadn't bargained for the amount of work that would be involved in explaining to them, or inspiring him to move on his hands and knees, spending a week crawling around the house with my husband. In the end it was silly, and even fun, but it was not as straight forward as I thought it would be. And it was much more emotionally fraught than it probably needed to be.
I like to think that if we have a second child, I'll be a lot more comfortable and confident in my parenting that time around. But I'd like to say now to all the parents I wished would just leave their child at school already during those long, drawn out goodbyes - when I stood by and waited as a teacher - I get you now. I feel what you're grappling with. And to the good teachers and child-care providers out there who know how to help a child transition away from their parents happily - thank you. A child needs all these different kinds of love and support. And while I recognize this cerebrally now, I hope I will soon be ready to put it into practice, as I put my son into day care. Some day. Soon.
(Naomi Alfini is a TCELS Board member, mother and educator.)