As soon as we pull into the parking lot of my daughter’s nursery school, she begins to cry.
“I don’t want to go to school,” she whispers in a soft voice.
When I look at her in the rearview mirror, her small lips form a pout and her brow is furrowed. The sun shines through the window and her brown hair looks almost blond in the light. Her hands clutch her small pink security blanket.
I sigh. My two-year-old daughter started at a local nursery school several months ago, and at first she loved it, but within a few weeks, she developed heartbreaking separation anxiety.
“Mommy will you carry me inside?” she asks as we pull into the parking lot. I nod.
She clings to me when I unstrap her from the car seat. The weight of her small body melts into mine as we walk down the colorful hallway into her classroom.
“Please Mommy, I don’t want to go to school. I love you the best and want to stay with you,” she sobs into my ear, while wrapping both of her arms around my neck. Her words pierce me and I despise myself for knowing that I will leave her when all she wants is me.
“I love you the best too, but you are going to have so much fun at school,” I respond calmly while she cries into my shoulder. My voice is even and strong, and I imagine it soothing her. Instead, she clenches her arms tighter around me and smushes her face into my chest. It feels warm against my heart.
One of her teachers approaches us slowly while speaking to my daughter in a calm and loving voice. When I nod my head, she grabs my daughter and places her down at the table in front of a pile of play-doh. Her crying ceases momentarily, but I hear her wailing for me as I back out of the room and into the hallway.
My own tears run down my face and mingle with those leftover from my daughter. I force myself not to look back as I walk to my car. I am immediately aware of her absence from my chest. Instead of relief, I taste regret.
Five minutes later, I receive a text from my daughter’s teacher with the subject line: “happy.” The attachment is a photo of her painting with a smile on her face.
I still feel guilty.
I had a vision of what my daughter’s transition to nursery school would be like, and it was not this. Given her outgoing personality and independent side, I was certain that she would walk into the classroom on day one without looking back. I never thought that we would both be dealing with such crippling separation anxiety seven weeks into the school year.
Motherhood is frustrating and joyful and invigorating and exhausting, but most of all, it is surprising and nothing like I thought it would be. Every day is an adventure in embracing the unexpected.
When I was pregnant, I was one of those women who thought I knew what to expect. I had it all planned out: my daughter would latch easily and sleep well. I would cuddle her in the glider each night and sing lullabies while she looked up at me with her big beautiful eyes. I would hire babysitters to make sure that I could continue to do the activities that I loved.
The reality, of course, was different. She had trouble latching and suffered from colic for the first eight weeks. We sat in the glider for hours every night as she screamed in my ear, inconsolable. Instead of singing to her, I played a white noise mp3 on my iPhone. The monotone sounds soothed us both.
I wondered if I would ever get my life back. I hired a babysitter with visions of yoga classes, date nights and dinner with girlfriends. But since I was breastfeeding, I could only leave my daughter (or a pump) for two or three hours at a time. Sometimes my daughter was sick, and I didn’t want to leave her. Sometimes I had a babysitter come so I could just sleep. Sometimes I just wanted to be with her, to lay her small body on my chest and marvel at her beauty.
With every month that passed, I realized that the best parts of motherhood were when I least expected it. A snow day at home turned into a giggling dance party. When my adventurous daughter refused to swim all summer, I relished being able to relax by the kiddie pool.
Despite these moments, the fall has been a lesson in practicing patience. I wait for the texts from her teachers every morning, but it is not until I see my daughter’s smiling face at noon that I can really breathe again.
One morning just a few weeks later, she doesn’t cry when we pull into the school parking lot. The silence from the backseat surprises me, but I don’t say anything.
She asks if she can walk into school and hold my hand like a big girl. When we enter the building, she runs down the hallway giggling and excitedly puts her backpack and coat in her cubby.
I am quiet, trying to take in these changes, when she announces, “I am going to school by myself today.” Her voice is strong.
And just like that, she walks into the classroom, with her head up and her eyes dry.
My heart expands with pride, then cracks just a little bit.
I add this morning to the long list of moments of that have not gone as expected. Motherhood is many things, but most of all, it is nothing like I thought. And that’s okay with me.