I lay awake. The pillow feels all wrong. “Is this my pillow?” I wonder. I enter that weird space between waking thought and REM before my eyes snap back open in the darkness. My heart races, and I see him.
He’s a tiny newborn too jaundiced to latch without falling back asleep. He makes the tiniest whimpering sound (like a puppy) as my mother holds a cold washcloth to his feet, attempting to keep him awake. The cold washcloth, it tortures all of us. Then he’s eighteen-months-old with full red lips and blonde hair curling at the base of his neck, all sweaty from a nap. He looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. And then I see him running at age two, in those tan corduroys I loved so much. He bounces down the cobblestone sidewalk at the shopping center where I took him to Gymboree. He jumps on and off the planters, holding my hand for balance. He giggles as older shoppers look on with sweet smiles. My belly is big with his sister. We go to a café where he gets mac ‘n cheese and a cookie, our weekly tradition. He dips his bread into my soup and eats only a fourth of his cookie. He forgets about the rest.
He’s now four and a half.
I could tell you that those Friday afternoons in the café feel like a different life. It was a different life, but it really does feel like it just happened last week.
Just recently I noticed he has become long and lean. I try to playfully pinch the fat on his cheeks, but there is none. Before he gets into the tub I look at his body from behind. His legs, butt and back look just like his tall broad shouldered Daddy.
His breath stinks now when he wakes up in the morning. His feet smell now too. He will be five in a few months.
Five. An age that for me has always signified the entrance into actual childhood.
And here I am at midnight, restless.
I’ve been here everyday since that morning the doctor pulled him out of me with forceps, my whole body shaking from the pain, from the relief. My boy and I have been together everyday, but somehow I feel as if I missed it. Missed it all.
I lay in the dark and tears start to stream down my face. I wish I could hit rewind.
I remember when he was just a baby listening to other mothers talk about No Child Left Behind, standardized school testing, and opting out. I stood there with him in a baby carrier and thought kindergarten was a million years away. I thought to myself, “They’ll have all this stuff figured out by then. Education will improve, or at least I’ll know more by then.”
At the eleventh hour we have decided to enroll him in public kindergarten in the fall. I don’t know anymore now than I did then. It was always my intention to keep him at his private Montessori school for kindergarten. I wanted to delay. I wanted to keep him little. I told myself it was what was best for him.
But we’ve had to admit it’s not what is best for him.
There’s something about it that feels final, like there’s no turning back. The school district handbook freaks me out with its chapters of state and federal laws. The charts on minutes spent in school. The intense focus on bullying. The idea of not just fire drills but now the drills they must learn in case of a violent incident.
I want to fold him back into me. I want to keep him home. I want to move far out into the country and homeschool him.
Only I don’t.
Not at all.
I CANNOT teach this child. He is far too much like me.
When he has a “bad day” at school I listen to his preschool teachers with understanding. I try to be a grown-up and not make excuses for my child like those idiots who think their kid is blameless. But every damn time I want to say, “Oh yeah? Really? Did he, really? Well screw this place, we’re outta here!”
I want to burn rubber in the parking lot and never look back.
But I know he is to blame. So instead I listen. I swallow my pride. I ask for advice. I take him out to the car and ask why he’s had a bad day. We talk about respect and listening. I hold him while he cries broken with shame. I kiss his face all over and remind him that he had a bad day but he is good all the way through. From the top of his head to the tip of his toes. We talk about having a better tomorrow.
I can see the teachers inside watching me stand next to my car for ten minutes as all the other parents load kids up and drive away. I feel like I’m being judged. They probably think I’m too soft on him. They probably think his defiance is the result of my parenting.
But they don’t know my boy.
We drive home and listen to Joan Jett. I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.
We do dinner, bath time, PJs, and read books. I lay in his bed and we talk more about listening and respect. We talk about what his father and I expect from him. I ask him what the best part of his day was. He often answers, “Being with Mommy.”
I kiss him. I smell his hair.
And then hours later as I lay in bed I have the deep desire to sneak back into his room and snuggle him while he sleeps. While he’s still little.
While it’s still ok.
I know five is nothing. I know kindergarten will pale in comparison to him getting a driver’s license one day, or getting drunk for the first time, or smoking a joint, or getting his heart broken. I know we have many more “bad days” ahead of us. Days that will be light years more difficult than the first day of kindergarten.
But my first baby becoming a boy? This one is going to take me a minute.
I just need a minute.