For Mom, the Second Day of Kindergarten is Harder Than the First

First day!

Penelope waiting for the school bus on her first day of kindergarten.

(It’s the 50th blog post for “Growing Up With Penelope,” and I thought I’d celebrate by turning the page over to Bernadette. Since she’s written this post, there are two things I can guarantee. One, it’s a terrific read, and I’m sure you’ll love it. Second, this is a helluva lot longer than any post I would ever write!)

It’s the morning of the second day of Kindergarten, and the school bus has just pulled away. I’m mid-way into walking the beagles when it hits me, “Oh my God, she’s on the bus alone.”

Even though she’s not, of course, because all the neighborhood kids are on it with her.

And I have this panic attack – Will she get off the bus OK? Will she find her classroom OK? – even though I know perfectly well that the answer to both questions is yes.

I can’t call my husband for reassurance because he’s on his way to work sans broken cell phone. I can’t call my neighbor from across the street because I know she’s busy getting ready for an all-day PTA meeting. I can’t call my other two mom neighbors because they’re both at work.

So I do the only thing I can do: I take a deep breath, finish the walk, start a load of laundry, and sit down to write this story. But not before I post my freak out on Facebook, and learn from friends – not just acquaintances, but people who truly were friends in high school or college – that what I’m feeling is absolutely, positively, perfectly normal. (A newer friend, the mom of my daughter’s classmate and BFF, is on her third kid. She posts to reassure me that “the school is great. They will not lose her!”)

Rationally, I know all of this, but still I worry.

I worry that my daughter will have trouble making friends, though I know she has far more grace and confidence and self assurance than I ever did at her age.

I worry that my daughter won’t be kind to new kids who are afraid, though I know she understands what it is to be scared and different and in a place that is new and overwhelming.

And I worry that my daughter might get hurt, even though she survived two years of pre-K with only a few bumps and bruises, and I know there’s no reason to expect any differently now.

My husband emails me from work to tell me he’s found the folder he was looking for – one he thought our daughter had removed from his briefcase and placed in her backpack – and for a moment I’m disappointed that he’s found it because it means I no longer have an excuse to run up to the school, check our daughter’s backpack, and see with my own eyes that Penelope is truly OK.

An hour and a half after the bus pulls away, my mind is calmer. Writing, I know, helps; focusing on the screen as one word after another appears on it has, for me, always been a tonic.

And as I grow calmer, I find myself reflecting on the journey that brought us to this day. If you had asked me five years ago – before we began the adoption process that would ultimately lead us halfway around the world, to southern China and the most beautiful two-year-old you could imagine – I would have answered with the cockiness that only someone who has never experienced the agony of parenthood could.

“If I’m ever blessed to be a mother,” my childless self would have said, “I won’t be one of those overprotective ones who worries all the time.”

Ha!

I didn’t have to carry this child in my body for nine months to become a card-carrying, worrywart of a mom. I simply had to look at her, once, and to hold her, once. That’s all it took for me to be a goner.

I have calmed down in the three years since Penelope joined our family, but I do still worry. And I’ve learned from many friends, even before today’s Facebook post, that the worrying will never truly end. Not even, as my sister and sister-in-law are happy to tell me, when she’s grown and married and off on her own. They would know, having married off four daughters between them.

Yesterday, I was fine as I watched our daughter step onto the school bus for the first time, and without even a backward glance, find a seat and start chatting to her seatmate.

Now, 26 ½ hours later, I’m wondering exactly what sort of mother I am. Yesterday I was calm and collected; I didn’t worry a bit. Today I was, quite nearly, a hyperventilating basket case.

I’m blaming it on the adrenaline that’s no longer in my system.

The morning of the first day of Kindergarten was a whirlwind: getting showered and dressed, getting breakfast on the table, feeding the dogs, stuffing packed lunch and snack bags into the backpack, and asking Penelope if she’s nervous about Kindergarten. “No, Mama,” she answers. “I’m OK.”

Then we’re speed-walking down the driveway, video camera in hand, to wait for the bus with the boy across the street.

After a few minutes of picture taking and chatting with the boy’s parents, the bus arrives and, just like that, Penelope is on it and the doors are closing and I know with absolute certainty that if I’d allowed myself the time to think about how the years between now and college will pass in a blur of Daisy Troop meetings, sleepovers and first dates, I know I would have stood there crying as the bus carrying our little girl faded into the distance.

As it was, though, my husband and I had plans. We jumped into the car, drove to the school and parked, and sprinted across the parking lot and playground to the school’s front walkway so we could shoot photos and video of our daughter as she got off the bus for the very first time.

Mercifully for her, we weren’t the only parents who had this idea.

I stretched my neck and stood tippy-toed, watching for her cute little face to appear in the open doorway of the bus when suddenly, there she was: animatedly talking to the little boy walking alongside her, her fingers wrapped firmly around the straps of her bouncing owl backpack, not an ounce of fear or uncertainty anyplace on her face.

She was beaming, I was not crying, and my husband stood there smiling, part misty-eyed, part heart in his throat.

I knew, as we watched her walk down the long hallway to her Kindergarten classroom chatting to another little boy, that David was thinking exactly what I was thinking: how lucky he is, how lucky we are, to have this miracle of a child in our lives.

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Budding Artist

Love this photo. It brings out Penelope’s independence and style. Oh, and her fondness for cake!             (Photo credit: Kacy Jahanbini)

One evening before dinner recently, Penelope decided to start an art project. She headed into our home office, grabbed some black construction paper and declared quite firmly that she was going to make a Santa Claus. I had just finished a phone interview, and I took a break from deciphering the cuneiform in my reporter’s notebook to watching her rummage through her desk drawers for a pair of kiddie scissors. In a heartbeat, papers, pipe cleaners, crafts and crayons are flying about the office. By the time her scissors are snapping happily away, the room looks as though a pair of overzealous FBI Agents ransacked the office after mistaking me for some kind of drug kingpin.

Then Bernadette rang the dinner bell. And since we don’t actually have a dinner bell my wife just bellows “DINNNNNERRR!” from the kitchen.

Typically, dinner time means all play and work ends, we wash our hands and head to the table to eat. No electronics, no TV. But this night was a little different; I felt reluctant to drag Penelope away. And, although Bernadette has re-embraced her detox diet which means she cooked some unpronounceable ancient grains wrapped in cabbage, my hesitation had less to do with my wife’s menu and more to do with my daughter’s mien. It also had a lot to do with the phone conversation that just ended.

I recently undertook the role of communications consultant at the Hunterdon Art Museum. I had just ended a phone call with a terrific artist, Raven Schlossberg, who has three collages on exhibition at the museum. I asked Raven about one particular collage titled “A Moonlight Apparition,” because the piece simply astounds me. Whenever I wander about the second floor of the stone mill which houses the museum, I freeze when I approach this work.  Every time I stop I see something new in the collage that evokes a different emotion.

And, that’s precisely her intent, she told me. The piece, cutout illustrations of discarded children’s toys and household items against backdrop of houses bathed in moonlight, aims to trigger childhood memories that are both personal and universal. And, for whatever reason, this piece connects with me on a personal level.

I was curious about the cutouts and Raven said she’d been collecting magazines for over 20 years. She’s a lifelong pop archeologist, and began cutting out illustrations and creating collages before she hit kindergarten. “I started when I was around three years old. My bedroom was filled with magazines and books. I was an only child and I learned how to entertain myself,” she said.

Fifteen minutes later — the artist’s words still ringing in my ears — I sit at my desk watching Penelope hovering over her black construction paper, her lower lip jutting out as she concentrates. For the moment, I can’t stifle the creative energy I’m watching.

I don’t necessarily anticipate my daughter’s future artwork will grace the walls of a museum, however, her black Santa Claus looks beautiful hanging precariously from a single strand of scotch tape on our filing cabinet drawer. Santa has one thin eye where his earlobe should be; the other rests comfortably on his shoulder. There’s some line near Santa’s mouth. I’m guessing it’s a Lucky Strike.

On some occasions you just need to throw the rules out the window. For a 10 minute delay before dinner, I now have a precious memory.

P.S.: If you’d like to check out Raven Schlossberg’s work, go here. Better yet, go to the Hunterdon Art Museum where the collage exhibition runs until early January. Or, if you’re in NYC in February, she’ll have a solo show at the Pavel Zoubek Gallery, 533, West 23rd St.

Ties That Bind

I had just confused a boccie ball with a melon ball. Or maybe it was a Scarlett O’Hara and a Red Headed Slut. Either way, I was pacing back and forth behind a bar, hands on hips, muttering something not printable in a family blog.

This was back in January when  I was practicing for a portion of my final exam for bartending school — a speed drill in which I would have to make 12 drinks in seven minutes from among any of the 160-some-odd drinks we had covered during class. I had the drinks down cold if you gave me a name and asked me to spit back what went into the glass. But I needed work on the actual practice of grabbing the proper glass, bottles, mixers — in the proper proportions — along with the garnishes, and move onto the next drinks. I would eventually get it, but I just wasn’t there yet.

The instructor, who was kind enough to tutor me when she likely had better things to do like arrange future class schedules or play Farmville, sensed I needed a break. We started chatting about my future plans, and why I decided to learn a new skill. I told her I had always wanted to bartend, and that I’d realized lately the importance of truly enjoying your work. Important for me and for my family. I hope to teach Penelope the importance of making a career by doing what you love.

When I mentioned that I had a four-year-old adopted daughter from China, the instructor leaned over the bar, her voice getting slightly hushed and gentler. “Can I ask you something?”

I wasn’t sure where she was going, but I have always been pretty open about my experiences adopting a child. “Of course,” I said.

“Is it the same? When you adopt a child, do you have the same feeling . . . the same bond, I guess, that you do if you have the child naturally?”

It’s a good question. I can’t compare the two experiences because we’ve never conceived a child. But I can tell you of the immeasurable and immediate joy that swept through me the moment I held my daughter. And, the exhilaration. And the sheer terror.

And the feeling that somehow a miracle had just occurred. Maybe not the miracle of witnessing birth, but one of traveling halfway around the world to meet and hold a little girl (she was two at the time) who will be a huge part of our lives forever. The feeling that this is exactly what was supposed to happen and how it was supposed to be. Yes, it took reams of paperwork, miles of legwork and a wad of cash, but all the headaches and small heartaches melted away the moment we looked into her beautiful black eyes.

Dozens of books exist that detail the attachment process, so perhaps a story will suffice here. I remember the second or third day in Xiamen City, and we were at the pool. I thought it’d be fun to take Penelope into the adult pool. (This was before a rat the size of a chihuahua dove into the pool and sent Japanese businessmen scurrying like rice on a hot wok. I wrote about it here.) I hoisted Penelope above my head and started walking down the pool steps when I discovered something interesting about swimming pools in China. (Well, at least at this hotel.) The tile used in this particular pool was slippery bathroom tile. On the second step, my feet went flying out from under me. And although my toes were level with my chin, somehow instinct kicked in and I kept Penelope above my head, while I floundered backward into the water. I suspect she had no idea what happened, but my back sure did.

Later, I lay in bed thinking how quickly it all happens. One minute you’re cruising along without a care in the world, and the next you’re totally responsible for this tiny soul. Doesn’t matter whether it takes nine months or two years, or whether the child enters your life — screaming like a banshee — in a hospital room or a hotel suite. The bonds are instantaneous and unbreakable. And yes, miraculous.