Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Gilman
When my son was a few weeks old, I often fantasized about escaping from my new life as a parent. I dreamed about being able to shower without hearing piercing baby wails from down the hall, and about going out for dinner and a movie with my husband like we did in our carefree former lives. As I wrestled with the demons of postpartum depression, I even daydreamed about getting hit by a car, resulting in injuries just bad enough that I had to stay in the hospital, where I’d be able to sleep and have someone bring me food.
Almost two years later, I found myself preparing to send my son to daycare for the first time. I was at long last going to get some independence back, which I had craved so badly during all those endless days and nights of monotony. But instead of relief and excitement, all I felt was dread and sorrow. My son and I had spent every day together, and in the process, had become inseparable, each of us an extension of the other. And now I was going to leave him—my heart—with someone else. Cue the ugly cry meme.
After agonizing over the decision of where to place our son for his first foray into the land of childcare, we settled on a small home daycare. In preparation for the transition, I inundated my son with books from the library about going to daycare. Look how much fun they’re all having! Daycare is the most magical place in the world and you’re going to love it! He seemed to be buying what I was selling, clapping happily and proclaiming “daycare!” in the weeks leading up to the big day.
As for myself, I talked to my mom friends and my therapist, all of whom reassured me that we’d both be okay. I meditated and confronted my anxious thoughts. I provided my son’s caregiver with explicit details of his favourite foods and naptime rituals. I packed a bag with his teddy and blankie and favourite sippy cup. Like a soldier going into combat, I was armed and ready.
For the first day, we decided it would be best to just do one hour as a sort of trial run. As I took off his jacket and helped him settle in, I explained that I would be leaving, but would return soon. A look of panic swept across his face, as it sunk in that that daycare was not a place where parents stay. The tears poured down his sweet little face as I passed him off to his caregiver.
“Mommy too! MOMMY TOO!” he shrieked, his words leaping across the doorway and slicing straight through my heart.
“It’s okay, I’ll be back soon, have fun at daycare!” I said with a forced smile. I kissed him and closed the front door, his screams of protest spilling onto the street and following me all the way to the car.
Buckled in and out of my son’s line of sight, I wept. Leaving my son in tears and relying on someone I barely knew to comfort him felt completely at odds with my maternal instinct. I wanted to run back inside and grab him and keep him with me—at least until he went to college. Instead, I did what any normal woman in her mid-thirties would do: I called my mommy.
“I…can’t…do…this…I’m…so…saaaaad,” I sobbed as the tears soaked my steering wheel.
After regaining my composure, I drove home and turned on the TV and tried to resist the temptation to spend the hour Googling daycare horror stories. I prayed he would be all smiles when I picked him up—after all, don’t people always say that kids usually stop crying right after you leave? But my fantasy bubble was quickly popped. I could hear him crying and calling for me even as I approached the house. Once he spotted me, his little arms immediately reached out, his eyes puffy and red.
Things got a lot better for my boy as the week went on. His caregiver sent me photos and updates, reassuring me that he was happy and having fun. By the third day, he was napping, and by the fourth day, he happily waved “Bye Mommy!” at drop-off and eagerly ran over to the pile of toys and new friends waiting for him. He was fine.
So why, on the other hand, was I still a complete mess?
I felt as though I had experienced a terrible breakup, with every song on the radio reminding me of him, and a queasy feeling deep in my stomach whenever I thought about him. I cried as I drove past cement mixers and fire trucks, not hearing his little voice from the backseat excitedly naming every vehicle that went by. I felt like a limb had been removed from my body, a huge piece of me suddenly missing, as I lamented all the things I was no longer present for during his day. What if he said something hilarious? What if he was thirsty but too shy to ask? What if he had to go a whole day without eating cheese?
It hit me that this was the first of many such transitions where I’d be saying goodbye to my son and handing him over to someone else. In a montage sequence straight out of the movies, I could see it all: preschool, kindergarten, driving lessons, college, marriage. In those early newborn days, I had been so eager for time to speed up, and now it suddenly felt as though it was all moving way too fast. And unlike watching a movie, there was no pause button—only the steady stream of events unfolding and milestones coming and going in the blink of an eye.
It’s now been a few weeks since our daycare adventure began and we’re both still adjusting. Some days he cries at drop off, some days he doesn’t. Some days I revel in the delight of writing and eating in peace, or not having to spend the day reading books about backhoe loaders and listening to The Wiggles' “Hot Potato” on repeat. Other days I miss him so deeply that my body physically aches from sadness, until that magnificent moment when he runs to me during pick-up at the end of the day, smiling and wrapping his arms around my legs.
I’ve realized this is what it is to be a parent—it is somehow both the most abundantly joyful and excruciatingly painful experience, all at the same time. There is no quick fix or simple solution for getting through the tough transitions and challenges that parenting brings. Like the cliché declared on that poster hanging on the wall of your high school guidance counsellor’s office: the only way out is through. So I’ll continue to trudge along, reminding myself of all the good things that will come from teaching my son to be independent and from allowing myself to rediscover who I am on my own. And when we are together, I’ll hold him close to me that much tighter, clinging to each moment before the next one begins.