Separation anxiety: How my toddler (finally) adjusted to preschool

mom hugging child- first day of preschool

The hallway has become my new home away from home, ever since my two-year-old son reneged on our deal. It was very simple: Jake would go to preschool for a couple of hours every day where he would play, learn and make some new friends. In turn, I would have a chance to refresh and recharge. Also: clean my house, organize our closets, make prints of our digital photos and go to the gym. Or, at the very least, go to the grocery store (by myself!) and take a nap.

I had it worked out so beautifully in my mind—he would have a great time at school, and I would be productive. Then, when I picked him up, we would be so happy to be reunited that we would spend the rest of the day snuggling in our sparkling, clean house.

However, on the first day of preschool, Jake made it pretty darn clear that things might not go according to plan. The banshee-like screaming may have been the first clue. Throwing himself on the ground after I kissed him goodbye (“I will see you later! Have so much fun!!”) may have been the second. Clinging to my legs and sobbing when I tried to leave was the third.

Seeing how this was disturbing the other well-adjusted two-year-olds in his class (who all seemed to have no problem separating from their parents), I was advised to stay in the hallway. His teachers explained that for children who have a particularly hard time separating, parents are encouraged to sit outside the classroom until their child adjusts. Children are allowed to visit when they want, but as they build trust in the teachers and get involved in the classroom, they visit less and less. At most, the teachers said, this would take a few days.

Possibly a week.

One week turned into two, and now here we are, the beginning of the third week, and Jake still isn’t showing any signs of readiness. On a typical day, he stays in the classroom for about ten minutes. Then, he seems to suddenly remember I am not next to him, and he runs out into the hallway in a sheer and utter panic, and rushes into my arms. One of his teachers comes out into the hallway, and together we cajole him back to a happy place. When he calms down, he goes back into the classroom.

Then the whole thing happens all over again.

I am growing increasingly befuddled and confused. I am also starting to feel a little angry towards my sweet muffin (baby books sure don’t cover that one). Angry! I can’t get a handle on why he is doing this. He is so happy and independent at home—content to play by himself for long periods of time. The classroom is full of enticing toys, his teachers are wonderful and the other kids seem perfectly sweet. Why can’t he relax and have fun? What is so great about me, anyway?

Then, the next morning, just as I am ready to throw in the towel, something happens. As we enter his classroom, instead of looking at me with fear in his eyes when I grab “my” chair, he takes it from me and brings it into the hallway. He kisses me on the cheek and walks back into the classroom, without any prompting. Just to make sure it is really happening, I peek inside the classroom from the window on the door, searching for his face. I spot him on the reading rug, happily looking at a pop-up book with another little boy.

As the day progresses, he does not visit me every ten minutes—I count a full 34 minutes between one visit. When he does come out, there are no tears, just a quick check to see that I am still there. Sometimes he gives me a hug, other times, just a knowing little smile.

I feel immense happiness and relief. Also, a little sadness. Really, now: Who told him I was ready? Maybe it would not be that bad to stay in this hallway after all. I can bring my laptop and get some work done. Perhaps we can both get used to this.

What an incredible lesson in love

Of course, I know I can’t do that, and I don’t really want to, either. It’s amazing though, how as soon as he starts to show signs of independence, I am the one who feels clingy. I am suddenly acutely aware of how fast he is growing up. The fact is, I will not, and cannot, always be within arm’s reach of him, and I realize I should be savoring this time instead of wishing it away.

I had been so caught up in my preconceived notions of what this experience should look like that I almost missed it. It hits me how incredibly fortunate I am to be a witness to this brief, fleeting moment in time. I get to observe, up close, as my little boy struggles to reach the next step on the ladder of development, and I get to love him through it. Not only do I get to watch, but he knows I am watching, which is equally important.

This moment will soon be gone, and I won’t remember the difficult parts. Time does that. What I will remember is that I was here for it. What else do we have, really? These are the things that sustain us. We won’t remember the minutiae of everyday life with our kids—the hundreds of meals we cooked for them, the baths, the endless hours in the car—but we will remember this. These moments when we watched them blossom from one stage into another.

This experience is also teaching both of us a healthy way to detach. Not only does it honor our relationship, but most importantly honors him and his growing, impressionable brain. Although it may not be going exactly how I had envisioned, don’t I want to get it right? Don’t I want to positively demonstrate a meaningful, loving way of letting go? Won’t that serve him well for the future, and the many goodbyes he will someday face? What an incredible lesson in love, too—demonstrating that among its many expressions, sometimes just being there, loving from the sidelines, is enough.

It is Monday morning, the beginning of the fourth week. As we enter Jake’s classroom, one of his teachers pulls me aside.

“Mrs. Loeb” she smiles. “I meant to tell you on Friday. He is doing well, and we feel confident he is ready. I think this will be your last day in the hallway.”

I look over at my sweet little boy as he struggles to hang his jacket on the small hook in his cubby. He looks peaceful and happy—ready for whatever the day will bring. Suddenly, tears appear. Although this time, he is not the one who is crying.