A child’s first day at school is a pivotal moment for the whole family – and the pandemic has made it even more so.
Because of the restrictions, my four-year-old daughter only had a fleetingly short time at nursery and has mainly been at home with me, or her grandparents, for her whole life so far. She hasn’t interacted with other children, only her younger sister. It meant that, as her first day of school approached this month, the entire family rode a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions: excitement, relief, worry and stress.
The anticipation built. My daughter couldn’t wait to mix with new friends; to learn to read and to play on the slides. I was looking forward to getting a bit more work done in peace and perhaps even having a coffee, on occasion.
On September 2, I walked my daughter to our village school in Staffordshire, a smile plastered on my face. I excitedly garbled away to her about all the great times she was going to have. But underneath it all, every step that took us closer to the school made me want to turn around and run home.
I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t let her sense my worry or upset, but as we came up to the classroom door my bottom lip wobbled. Covid has made the transition for new schoolchildren and parents so much harder. I haven’t seen inside the classroom, properly met the teachers or taken my daughter to induction days. So having to drop her off at the door, wave and watch her walk inside alone was almost too much to bear.
I felt like my heart had been ripped out. I couldn’t stop the tears, and I silently cried as I walked back through the playground. I genuinely felt like I’d left part of me behind. I’d never expected to feel this deeply about it. I knew I’d be worried about her, but I had been looking forward to having more time to myself, and for her to have the chance to play with lots of children and learn new things.
I started questioning all of my parenting decisions over the years and wondered if I’d done enough to set her off on the right track. My daughter was about to take her first steps into the world, by herself without me, and I was suddenly frightened I hadn’t sufficiently prepared her or equipped her with the skills she needed to make it in the big wide world. Would she make friends? Would she sit in the corner alone? Would she cry or be hungry? What would happen if she hated it?
It’s not just me who has had to put a brave face on for this big change. My husband had a knot in his stomach all day at work and felt sick with worry about whether our daughter would settle and interact with the other children. Our two-year-old daughter was crying as we walked home, too, and saying her sister’s name over and over. She’s a lockdown toddler and has spent every day of her life with her older sibling.
Although I felt I’d been hit by an emotional steamroller, I spent the day trying to cover up how I felt and putting on a brave face.
Most parents don’t show this side of the first day of school. I’ve seen countless social media posts these last few days of sweet little four-year-olds in uniform that’s too big, smiling on the doorstep. Underneath there are comments from friends and family, and emojis showing smiles and laughter. But behind all this, the emotional fallout for everyone can be more unpredictable and difficult to manage than we tend to publicly acknowledge. I’m guilty of it, too. I WhatsApped the obligatory photo to family and friends, with the caption: ‘First day at school – how cute does she look?’.
I only admitted to a few people how I really felt. My best friend offered to call and console me, but I replied: “I just can’t even talk about how I feel.”
While wondering if I was the only parent to feel this way, I was given the perfect opportunity to find out. My daughter had been invited to a classmate’s birthday party just two days after starting school. So I found myself in a village hall on Sunday afternoon with 30 little people, chatting with the other parents. As we watched our children tentatively begin to make friendships, I asked whether others had felt like an emotional mess at the school gate. One mother felt the same way as me; a father admitted he had cried in the car afterwards.
It’s been a far harder milestone than I ever imagined it would be. Not that my daughter knows or minds – she’s too busy running into school each morning and smiling as I wave goodbye. The only lip still wobbling is mine.