The Rockwood Files: Empty Cave Syndrome

By Gwen Rockwood, columnist and mama bear

I watched my tow-headed 6-year-old bound down the sidewalk this morning, red lunchbox dangling from his hand. With a smile and a quick wave, he climbed into the neighbor’s carpool and he was gone. Just like that.

I closed the front door behind me and the still silence in the house confirmed what I already knew. It’s back-to-school time. During my morning Dr. Pepper and granola bar, I sat in the kitchen wondering how it happened so fast. How did my firstborn, the colicky baby who used to sleep only when tucked into the crook of my arm, become independent enough to leave me simply because the calendar says it’s time for first grade?

I thought it would be more like it was last year, when his dad and I walked him into school to meet his kindergarten teacher and he clutched our hands as tightly as he could and relied on us to help him meet the other nervous kids around him. But this year, he said he was big enough to do it by himself – that he was a first grader now and he didn’t need any help. I congratulated his bravery and wondered silently if he had enough to spare for me. The mama bear in me really needed to walk him into that school to make sure he’d be okay so I’d be okay. But here I am, back at the cave, marveling at the heavy silence left behind by a first grader gone back to school.

The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach today makes me feel even guiltier about how I’ve spent the last several weeks of summer longing for back-to-school time. Whether we admit it or not, most parents begin an internal countdown to the first day of school sometime around the end of July. Ironically, summer break can be a bit exhausting, with all its trips to visit far-away family members, the back and forth to kids’ day camps, the swim lessons, the play dates, the movie matinees, and a constant barrage of summer’s No. 1 question “Mom, what can we do NOW?”

It’s no wonder we parents secretly wish for school to start. What the phrase “back-to-school” means to us is “back to normal” –a normal, everyday routine that helps us get organized and get things done. We fall back into that comfortable rhythm that becomes so automatic that the next three months will fly by and soon we’ll be staring Christmas break in the eye.

I take advantage of today’s quiet breakfast and jot down the day’s to-do list. I have to write quickly because it won’t be quiet here for long. In another 20 minutes or so, my 4-year-old and 1 ½-year-old will stumble sleepily out of their beds and soon be clamoring in the kitchen for chocolate milk and orange juice. The noise level in the house will climb up to the low roar it usually is and the day will zip by in a blur of meals, snacks, laundry, errands, Lego blocks and picture books. Then it’ll be time to go to school and pick up Adam. I’ll question him about his day all the way home, trying to piece together a mental picture of what his life is like away from our cave.

By this time next year, my little Jack will start kindergarten and I’ll have two kids bounding away from me toward elementary school. A year after that, my baby girl will begin preschool and then there’ll be no one hanging around my refrigerator asking for orange juice. Then what? How’s a mama bear supposed to cope with that?

I can’t think about it now. That’s an emotional crisis for a different day. For now, I’ve just got to loosen my hold of one kid and treasure the time spent here at the cave with the other two, until it’s their turn to go.

The day before school started, I asked Adam what he thinks I will be doing while he’s busy at school all day. He said, “Well, you’ll probably do the dishes and work on your computer and stuff like that.” The kid is only in first grade and already he has my agenda all mapped out. The good news is that, thanks to this quiet morning, I’ve got my computer work nearly done. So now I can move on to a sink full of breakfast dishes and then a long to-do list of “stuff like that.”

1 Comment

  1. Gwen,
    My sweet eldest went to 9th grade and wants me to take her to her drivers test on Wednesday. I’m thrilled you realize how critical and short this time is.

Comments are closed.