By April Wallace, Northwest Arkansas mama
On his very first day of preschool, I walked Henry to the front door in his sweet little striped polo shirt and nicely combed hair. I reminded him to be nice to everyone around him and to ask his teacher for help anytime he needed it.
But really, I could not believe we were here already.
It didn’t matter that we had applied to preschool a year before and ultimately backed out because of the (then-new) pandemic. It didn’t matter that I had completely burned myself out trying to care for our 3 boys around the clock while managing a home renovation.
Had it been that long ago since I wore him constantly in a baby wrap? Was it ages ago that he viewed the whole world from his stroller? Surely not.
It was hard to believe I was about to turn him over to virtual strangers for seven whole hours, nor could I fathom that we would do it all over again the next day.
I didn’t feel ready.
I mourned the end of this phase, the one where we did practically everything together. He came with me to city council meetings I covered, sat next to the Mayor during planning commission meetings, went to my haircuts and all other errands.
And I repaid him with all those early childhood luxuries: window watching for the garbageman, postmen, other workers and their exceptional trucks…trips to kids music classes and museums, library storytimes, endless playdates, indulgences at the trampoline park, visits to all the local parks and so many more.
Ever since his little brother Elliott arrived on the scene, it’s been the three of us against the world, and now it felt like we were losing one of the three amigos.
On Day 1, I busied myself with getting the family nicely dressed and taking a little video of Henry walking into school with my husband. Luckily Elliott had an appointment we had to get to immediately after, which helped move things along despite my mind’s constant revolving door:
Would he be scared when I left? Would he find anything he liked to eat at lunch? Would he need help with the potty? Did they have those awfully loud hand dryers?
I kept my phone off silent mode for what I was sure would be a call from the school to say things weren’t going well. It didn’t help that 90 minutes after Henry started school, I found one of his many LEGO tanks in my purse. My first baby wasn’t next to me, filling me in on his latest imaginary Army venture.
It didn’t feel right. You’d think he’d gone off to the Middle East, not half a mile (easy walking distance) from our house.
Each hour of that day I wondered what he was up to, but a phone call never came. He made it through the day. Still, it was the hugest relief of my life to pick him up, take him home and resume our usual after-nap snack and storytime.
The reluctance went both ways. Early on, as I drove him home from preschool, Henry would ask what Elliott and I had done all day and always said he wanted to do that with us, too. And it broke my heart when he told me that he was sad at school because he didn’t see me there.
By the end of the first week, I’m pretty sure we both wanted it to end, but I kept taking him day after day, knowing that eventually we would adjust and it would be rewarding for everyone, especially Elliott. My youngest child had never had one-on-one time with mama, and was in need of the time and space to work on his speech without big brother talking over him.
But once we got past the worst of the homesickness, the biggest challenge was staying well. Never having been in daycare for long, Henry picked up every non-COVID illness around.
The first two bouts were the worst, since I was sure he would get COVID right off the bat. He had his first rapid tests and bravely got through them clinging to a favorite stuffed toy and cuddling up to re-read a How Tanks Work book with me over and over.
We all got sick so many times and for so long that when I would hop in the car to pick Henry up in the afternoons, Google Maps would ask, Would you like to go to NWA Pediatrics today? Often we did. We went at least once a week (sometimes twice or more) for more than 2 months. I asked the front desk for a punch card.
Eventually we got sick less and less, and Elliott and I leaned into our newfound quality time. His speech immediately began to grow, and I started to learn so much more about this little personality than I’d ever had time for.
As I began to trust Henry’s teachers and staff more, I finally allowed myself to not be on constant standby and wandered out of the neighborhood to have my own fun with Elliott. It was a delight to let him pick his own adventure for the day, a luxury he’d never experienced.
It got even better with little reports from school about Henry’s growing independence. He could open his own snacks now, he needed less help in the bathroom, he napped very well today. Each message helped, and seeing his growth already encouraged me that this was the right thing all around.
Henry still told me often that he missed me when he was at school, but once his teacher told me that he’d said he missed her while he was at home, I knew we were in a good arrangement and didn’t have to feel such guilt about sending him off.
Halfway through his first semester, he was telling people at school that he loved them and coming home with stories about his new friends. Anytime I popped into the school’s front office, I’d hear that he was one of the sweetest boys they’d ever met—he was calling them by name, thanking them, and was glad to see them.
Henry’s coming into his own at school, finding that he likes to be on a stage any time there’s an opening. And I’m appreciating that at this phase there’s still plenty of room for me to teach him myself. I am delighted that school is giving him new social skills, learning not just how to be polite and work together all day, but how to stand up for himself when needed and to express his emotions a little more clearly.
Meanwhile, I get to continue guiding him with traditional stuff like writing, sight words, counting higher and higher, learning to sort items and expanding that vocabulary. But it’s nice to know I have a daily, reliable teacher counterpart I can compare notes with.
Even now Henry often asks why school is necessary and how long he’ll have to go. It’s not perfect, and I still miss him during the day. But we’ve seen so much good now on both ends that I’m glad we took a chance on it—it’s hard to imagine turning back.
April Wallace is mama to two curious boys, Henry and Elliott; stepmom to one whip-smart teenager and wife to a very kind and generous man. This post was published in 2022. She is now an editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.