Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fly, Baby Bird

I googled “tips on preparing your anxious child for preschool.” I had conversations with Aaron, with my work friends, with my best friends, with my daycare provider, with my boss, with my family.  I read articles.
I know how nervous Adam can get before any new experience, even when I’m right there with him (case in point: t-ball, or seeing his first play)—and I knew starting preschool would be a billion times worse, at least in his head, because he would be on his own. Unfamiliar faces in an unfamiliar building doing unfamiliar activities. I wouldn’t be there to squeeze his hand, I wouldn’t be there to let him bury his tear-stained face in my shirt, I wouldn’t be there to hug him and reassure him that everything would be fine, he would be alright, he could do this.
I wouldn’t be there.

And so I talked to others and asked questions and read things online. There just had to be some magic formula that would help him during this transition; something that would make him feel better about the unknown. Every time I thought about how scared or sad he would feel—or how there was nothing I could do to fix it—my heart ached.
We visited the preschool not once but twice this summer in order to ease him into it. We talked a lot (too much?) about what to expect. We told him we’d celebrate his first day of school with a trip to Chipotle (Poach-lay)! He talked about it at daycare with Mary, how the three “big boys” were going to school this year and the fun they would have learning new things (the big boys are all 5, and they’ve pretty much been inseparable since they were babies). Adam sounded excited about his new school. He sounded ready. He was FIVE now. He could totally handle this change in his day-to-day routine. Bring it on.

I wasn’t so sure.
I mean, I wanted him to be ready, but didn’t he act this exact same way before t-ball? He was ready and rarin’ to get to the softball field and couldn’t wait to play ball, and once we pulled into that parking lot before the first game, he announced, “Never mind. I don’t want to play.” He refused to wear his uniform, he refused to sit on the bench with the other kids, and he refused to run the bases when the other kids were practicing (and only participated when I went out on the field with him). All of that apprehension and anxiety and his dad was the coach. I thought that fact would've given him some solace.
He tried hard not to cry, but eventually gave in to the tears and started crying before the game started. He buried his face in my shirt—he was embarrassed, and knowing that he was embarrassed was even more agonizing than knowing he was scared. I just wanted him to feel as comfortable as the other kids. I have never been shy, so it was hard to understand where he was coming from. I’ve since come to accept that he doesn’t easily adapt to change. He worries. (And worries. And worries some more.) I thought about my friend Amanda and how she had told me that she had been the same way when she was younger—new experiences were terrifying. I had to remind myself that different kids have different personalities. Today Amanda is a smart, productive member of society with a close-knit group of friends who think the world of her, so I knew there was hope. I had to be patient and most of all, I had to be supportive. He wasn't acting that way by choice. It was his personality. I'd be lying, though, if I said I wasn't a little bit frustrated. The other kids were wearing their jerseys, the other kids were on the bench, not sitting on their mom’s lap, the other kids were acting goofy and laughing. 

Aaron put Adam last in the lineup. When it was his turn to bat, he hesitated before going up to the tee. He looked nervous, then said in a quiet voice, “Mom, come with me.”
My mother-in-law had surprised us by showing up at the field, and I was deeply appreciative of her presence. She was a God-send. She distracted Ben (who thought he was also on the team and kept trying to join the kids out on the field) so that I could put all of my focus on Adam. I honestly don't know what I would have done if I had been alone.
I held Adam's hand and walked with him to home plate, where Aaron was waiting. I handed him off to his dad and hoped he wouldn’t notice as I snuck back to the sidelines. He didn’t. He carefully picked up the bat, stood where he was supposed to stand, and hesitated again. It was the moment of truth—would the coach’s son have enough courage to hit the ball? And if he did go for it, would he hit the ball, hit the tee, or hit nothing?
He took one hard swing and the ball went sailing. A smile broke out on his face as he ran to first, and it was like heaven’s light was shining down on him. A weight had clearly been lifted off his shoulders. And because he was the last at-bat in the lineup, he got to run all the bases. He looked like he was having the time of his life, his little arms pumping hard as he rounded first, then second, then third. (The last batter in the lineup got to run all the bases. It was a much faster-moving system than waiting for three outs.)
Getting a hit didn’t give Adam enough confidence to put on his jersey, or sit on the bench, or play outfield without me “coaching” (standing) out there next to him, but it was a start. It was a good sign.
By the second game, he didn’t need me to walk him to the tee or stand by him on the field, but he still didn't want to wear his jersey. 
And by the third game, he wore his jersey, sat on the bench, and hardly noticed I was even there. (Which was probably a good thing, because I was so busy chasing Ben that I barely had a chance to watch Adam's game.)

It was a very similar experience when we went to see Adam’s first musical play (Seussical: The Musical). For at least a week before the show, he talked about how excited he was to have a date with Mom (no Dad, no Ben, just Mom and her work friends). But when we walked into the building, his demeanor changed. He was too nervous to eat the Seussical-themed kid-friendly dinner, too nervous to answer simple questions, too nervous to talk to Alex, Kelly, or even Uncle Jeremy—all of them friends he had met numerous times. (I mean, come on. It's Uncle Jeremy!) When we took our seats in the theater, he obsessively worried about where we were sitting “Do you know how to get out? Will the doors lock? I don’t want to sit here anymore.” (I finally told him to put his face into the crook of his elbow if he felt overwhelmed or scared, and he took my advice.) 

Once the lights went down he just about jumped out of his skin “What’s going on? Why are they turning out the lights?!?!” It only took about 10 minutes for him to realize that the play wasn’t at all what he thought it would be (still not sure what that is, exactly, other than “creepy.”) He started asking a lot of really loud questions “Where did that come from!? Where did Dr. Seuss go? Is that Horton? Woah! Is that a JELLYFISH?! Is there water in the bathtub?!”—apparently we still have to work on the whole theater etiquette thing—laughed at all the right parts, and enjoyed the rest of the show. I could almost see the tension leave his muscles as he settled into his chair. He even snuck a few glances over at my boss’s adorable daughter Elly, and tried to engage her in manly conversation. “I scraped my knee at daycare. I have a HUGE Band-Aid on my leg. Wanna see it?”

So … after enduring those “first-time” experiences, I knew Adam’s first day would have to be handled on his terms, in his time.

The day before school started we had a really lovely Labor Day in Forest Lake with my parents—went boating and swimming and out to eat for lunch and grilled out for dinner (my mom even got a little tipsy on wine, that never happens!) and just enjoyed being together. We made sure to leave at a reasonable time in order for Adam to be well-rested on his first day of school. He was worn out from playing hard all day, and was (amazingly) fast asleep by 8:30 p.m.
So far, so good.
A few friends posted supportive messages on Facebook, which I really appreciated (thank you, friends). Knowing how Adam has a tendency to fret, his daycare friend Zander's mom even posted an encouraging video of Zander wishing Adam a good first day of school. So sweet.
Reality hit me as I read those messages. Adam was going to be separated from his three best friends and his daycare mom—away from daycare, his second home for the past FIVE years—of course he was scared. I felt a little like how I imagine I will feel when he starts kindergarten. I know it’s time to push the baby bird out of the nest, I know he’ll be better for it, and yet it’s bittersweet, this rite-of-passage. I think it was the realization that I simply can’t protect him all the time. 
The next morning, we were all up early. Our goal was to be out the door by 6:45 a.m. When Aaron nudged Adam awake, there was no way Adam had forgotten overnight what day this was. His lower lip trembled as he fought back tears. “I don’t want to go to preschool.”
And then it was like a dam burst, the tears came fast and furious and he couldn’t stop. He didn't want to go, he wanted to stay at daycare forever. “I don’t want to go to preschool, all of my friends are at daycare! I don't even care about preschool. I don't!”
It was a very emotionally-charged morning. We tried to reassure him that he was going to be just fine and he was going to have fun and he was going to make new friends and he was going to learn all kinds of interesting new things. 
He was unusually silent on the drive to preschool. When I checked the rearview mirror, his face was as white as snow. 
I tried to empathize. “See those buses? All those kids are going to school, and a whole bunch of them are as nervous as you are. A whole bunch of kids are starting a new school today.” 
No reaction.
I tried distraction, with some success. We made a game of counting the school buses. I played his Barenaked Ladies kids' CD, turning up the volume when his favorite songs came on. 
Still no smile.
When we pulled into the parking lot of his preschool, Aaron’s dad called to wish Adam good luck during his first day of school. His timing could not have been more perfect ... that is, if the grandchild he was calling had been truly excited for school. Adam was too nervous to talk and just said “thank you” in a quiet, scared voice before handing the phone back to Aaron. When we got out of the car, Adam wanted me to hold him, so I did. (Aaron was there, too, waiting with Ben. He waited out in the parking lot so as not to make drop-off a bigger deal than it needed to be.)

When we got into the school, there were about 10 kids there, eating breakfast or playing. No one seemed nervous. No one seemed new.
“Hi,” I said to the director. “Here’s the check. Was I supposed to bring anything else?”
“Did you bring his pillow and blanket?” she asked.
His what? Oh God, I had failed him already.
“The kids each have a pillow and blanket for rest time,” she explained.
I’m sure there was a note about this in some packet of information, but shit. It would’ve been nice to have a reminder.
“We have a few community pillows and blankets here, but if you could bring his tomorrow, that would be great.”
I was busy at work and it would take me at least another 40 minutes to drive home and back to the center, but dammit, my nervous kid was going to have his own pillow and blanket! It was the least I could do.
“I’ll go home and get them.”
“Did you bring an extra change of clothes?” she asked, noticing that the only thing I was holding was a terrified 5-year-old.
Crap. Make that two-for-two. I was on a roll!
“No. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize he needed a change of clothes.”
“Please bring those too. It's good to have a spare set in case, ya know ...” 
Say no more. I know. 
“Did he eat breakfast yet today?”
Was this a trick question? “No?”
“We’ll start with breakfast then,” she said, waving to the three kids who were busy shoveling cereal into their mouths. We walked toward the kitchen area.
“Mom, don’t go!” Adam announced, a look of terror on his face as it sunk in that this was it—the Dreaded Goodbye. “Don’t go!”
“You can stand on this chair and wave goodbye to her,” the teacher suggested.
I walked him over to the window, stood him on the chair, and before I could go, he locked his fingers tightly around my neck. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to free myself from his grip. It was like he had super-human strength.
“NO! DON’T GO, MOM! DON’T GO!” he screamed, tears rolling down his cheeks. The teacher held him as I backed away.
I remembered what my dear friend Karla had told me the night before. Go into the school with confidence, and leave with confidence. Do not stall.
“I love you! You’ll be ok!” I yelled as I hurried toward the door, giving him an encouraging smile and a wave goodbye.
Get me out of here before I change my mind about all of this.
When I got to the parking lot, Aaron was waiting with Ben. We could all see Adam crying from his spot at the window.
“Well that sucked.”
Aaron gave me a comforting hug. 
“Where’s Adam?!” Ben asked, sounding borderline hysterical. “WHERE IS HE?!?”
Oh no, not him too.
“He’s at preschool.”
“I wanna go to school, too!” he cried. “I wanna go with Adam!”
I felt heart-sick. I’m sorry, Adam. And I'm sorry Ben for taking away your constant playmate and companion.
Aaron drove off to work and I drove to daycare, where Ben once again asked about his brother. It was weird not having Adam with me as Ben and I walked up to the door. This whole morning had been weird.
After I told the drop-off story to Mary and her daughter Katie (they were sympathetic) I said goodbye to Ben, hugged him, and turned to go. Ben cried “NO!” and ran for the door, blocking my exit. More tears.
“We’ll go stand on the chair in the toy room and wave goodbye to Mom,” Mary said, grabbing his hand and leading him away from me. “She has to go now. She has to get to work.”
I hurried up the stairs and out to my car, where—for the second time in less than an hour—I had to wave goodbye to one of my sons as he stood bawling at the window.
I turned on the radio extra loud and drove home where I retrieved Adam’s blanket, pillow, and a change of clothes, then got back in the car and headed toward his school. I didn’t want him to see me, so I decided I’d call the school and figure out a good drop-off spot where I could be incognito. When I got close to the parking lot, I noticed the director outside waiting with the school-age kids for the bus to come. Perfect. No Adam in sight.
I waited in my car until all the kids were safely on the bus, then approached the teacher with Adam’s blanket and clothes.
“How is he doing?” I asked. (Did I really want to know?)
“He won’t leave my side. He’s been my shadow all morning,” she smiled. “I have Adam on one leg and my son on the other.”
I could tell she was choosing her words carefully. There was no mention of him crying or asking for me or acting depressed and despondent.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, even though it was out of my control now. (Apologizing for things out of your control is very Midwestern.) “It must be hard to get anything done.”
“He’ll be fine,” she said. “He’ll warm up.”
Earlier that morning, I had pulled a magnet off the fridge of a little boy and girl together—a souvenir I had received from my friend Kirsten, all the way from Denmark—and tried to give it to Adam, but he had been crying too hard and we forgot about it. I read somewhere that if you give anxious children something to keep in their pockets as a reminder that Mom and Dad are thinking of them and are always with them, it will provide valuable peace of mind. I thought about giving Adam a special rock, but then figured his new teachers might not appreciate that and consider it a weapon. I briefly considered a button or a quarter too (don't laugh, I was trying to think of things that would fit in his pocket) and then noticed this adorable magnet on my way out of the house. It's a little bigger than a postage stamp. It could be a symbol of Adam and Mommy. Perfect.

“Would you mind giving this to him? So he knows I’m thinking of him,” I handed it over.
“I’ll try to come early today,” I told her. “I know this is all overwhelming to him.”
Another encouraging smile.  
“You come when it's most convenient,” she said.
Once I was at work I couldn't shake the feelings of guilt and sadness. Adam was miserable. It was hard to concentrate ... and to be perfectly honest, I was a little annoyed with all the look-at-my-happy-kid!-first-day-of-school photos on Facebook, even though many of those photos were of kids I know and love. Where were the photos of the sad kids? Oh yeah. People don't post those. (I will be the first to admit that I was jealous, but I quickly got over it.)
Around noon I debated whether or not I should call his school to check in.  
“What good would it do?” Aaron asked when I called him. “What will you do if you get a negative report? You'll just feel bad.”
I decided against it.
I left work a little early to pick him up. I was speeding and I didn't care. Move over, rush hour drivers! I am on a very important rescue mission! Instead of being the villain (like I was at drop-off), I'd get to be the hero!
When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a little blonde boy standing outside with a group of friends, smiling and playing “Simon Says” with one of the afternoon teachers. When he noticed me, he beamed. He waited until he had his teacher’s permission before leaving the group, then ran to me and threw his arms around my neck. After we hugged, I asked, “So, how was your first day?”
“Mom, I had SO much fun!” he answered.
Come again?
“You did?! You had fun?”
“Yeah, we did shapes and we played outside and we learned about the Farmers’ Market and we have a fish tank in my room and we can feed the fish. You should meet my teacher.” 
“I am SO proud of you, Adam. You were so brave,” I said, feeling like I was going to cry. I gave him another squeeze. America, did you hear that?!?! My nervous, anxious, resistant-to-change son had fun!
I met his afternoon teacher and then he grabbed my hand and pulled me inside, where his morning teacher was teaching a group of kids upstairs. 
“Her room is up here,” he said like an old-pro, leading me past his mailbox and past the lockers and past the chalkboards and sand table and book shelves and bins of dinosaurs and Barbies and trucks and Legos to a door in the back of the room. 
“We sleep on those cots.” He pointed to a stack of cots against the wall. “This one is mine.”
I met his teacher—who was very nice—and she told me he had been apprehensive and shy at first but relaxed after awhile. He even made a friend, CJ. 
Adam was happy in the car, excited to tell me about his day.
“Mom, do you know what hunting is?” he asked.
“Um, yeah.”
“Tell me,” his little voice demanded from the backseat.
“It’s when you go out and shoot animals,” I responded. “Like when Grandpa and your Uncle Shawny go to the woods to hunt for deer.”
“That’s not what hunting is at school. Hunting is when you go around the class and pick up messes.”
“I got to be a hunter today,” he proudly announced. “I didn’t get to feed the fish but I will when my name is added to the schedule.”
How do you know the meaning of the word schedule?
We celebrated that night with a trip to Chipotle—just like we promised—and made a big deal of his first day of preschool. 
And I wish I could say “And we all lived happily ever after” but life isn't ever that easy. This whole preschool thing is a work in progress. We're only on chapter one.
I knew, going into this, that it would take some time (a lot of time) to get him used to being at school twice a week. Drop-offs still consist of tears, he still cries during the day, he still gets nervous the night before he goes, he still acts like he can’t wait for me to get there at the end of the day, he still seems more relaxed/happy on the days he goes to daycare. I get it. Daycare is like Cheers—everybody knows his name—and at school he’s the nervous new kid. It's a tough transition. 
But should he still be struggling so much? I hate to hear that he still cries a lot throughout the day—so much so that his teacher told me the staff has had discussions about how to effectively distract him ... and he's only been there four days! I want them to get to know the wonderful, smart, sensitive, kind, caring little boy that is Adam, not the Adam who is constantly crying, who is worried his mom will forget to pick him up, who is too nervous to eat breakfast in the morning, who sits quietly with the group rather than actively participating. When will his behavior turn around? How many weeks will we have to endure the agonizing drop-offs? The when-will-you-come-get-me pick-ups? The tears? The anxiety?
If anything, this whole experience has given Aaron and I the conviction that we made the right decision to pull him out of daycare two days a week and enroll him in preschool, if for no other reason than the fact that this will help him prepare for kindergarten on a social/emotional level. 
I believe, even though this new routine is hard for him, in just two weeks he already seems … different when he's home. Older. More helpful. More respectful. More intelligent. More gentle with his little brother. He’s learning and I love that. I really hope this experience is slowly, patiently, bit-by-painstaking-bit giving him the wings he needs to fly.