My baby just left on a class trip for five days to a farm in the Catskills with her teachers and nineteen other second graders. There she will get up at 6 A.M. to gather eggs and muck out the barn and help prepare breakfast. She will learn to milk cows, to spin and weave wool. She will jump in a hayloft and go sledding and study beavers. Most of me thinks this is a splendid opportunity.
A friend told me she would never have applied to a school that sent the children away for five days in second grade. She thinks the pride parents take in their children’s ability to separate from their parents is a peculiarly American insanity. Her son, also seven, is horrified that my daughter is leaving me. Not me. I believe in independence, self-sufficiency and farms. I rode the school bus by myself in kindergarten and jumped in haylofts as a child. My daughter should do it too.
Everyone is well prepared for this trip. The parents were shown slides of last year’s happy farmers. Pages of instructions were sent home telling us what to expect, what to bring, and how to help our child feel comfortable. The children have been visited by farmer Ed and by the eight-year-old veterans of last year’s trip. They have chosen their bunkmates, their activity partners, and interviewed their stuffed animals to find out how they feel about leaving home. The children wrote books about what they expected to happen on the trip. My daughter wrote:
Unforchently you can’t bring your Mom or dad or Pets.
Forchently we’ll be with friends.
Unforchently you might have a bad dream.
Forchently it will pass and you will feel happy again.
Unforchently you don’t get to sleep in your own bed.
Forchently you get to learn about the farm and be on one.
She predicted that: When I first got on the bus I will be a little scared and homesick but then when I get home I’ll be farm sick. It seems that she, too, believes in independence, self-sufficiency and farms.
My belief in this experiment in independence wavers when I say good-bye this morning. We arrive an hour early to find a bus parked outside big enough to take half the school cross-country. It’s an ominous creature with black windows. We’ve been instructed to say our good-byes in the classroom. At home this morning she collapsed in my arms and was unable to eat breakfast, but now she is cool: “Bye Mom,” she says with a smile and turns toward her slightly hyper classmates.
The parents go downstairs to wait for the final send off. For most of us, it’s our first separation from a much-loved oldest or only child. Those with two children cling to the younger siblings who look as dazed and confused as their parents. We mill around in the hall and exchange stories. “I stayed up until eleven sewing on labels,” …“I was up until midnight making valentines,”… “I couldn’t sleep at all”…”I was worried about the weather but then I figured it would be OK. The guy driving the bus doesn’t want to die.” Images from the novel, Disturbances in the Field, of careening buses, flaming hair, and shrieking children float through my mind.
Finally, the kids march through the corridor of parents. We are cheering and waving at the stars of the moment. My daughter gives me a quick wave, a slight smile, and disappears into the bus. We continue waving at the black glass where only hands, not faces, can be seen. There are tears as soon as the bus pulls out. We say to each other, “I don’t know why I’m crying. I know they’re going to have a wonderful time.”
Suddenly, my worries about my child’s independence turn to thoughts about my own. The flip side of having my baby leave me is that I’m left with myself. I barely remember the person I was before I became the single parent of an only child. What will I do with a morning that’s not dominated by the strategic warfare of getting myself ready for work and a child dressed, fed, and organized for school? Will I hang around and drink coffee in bed or jump up and go to the gym? Will I make dates with all the people I’ve been longing to see? Or will I stay home and luxuriate in the solitude I’m been craving?
Ever since my daughter was conceived, I have lived in an occupied territory. When I was pregnant, my body was invaded by a presence that kicked and pressed on my internal organs, but then I didn’t have to do much to protect her beyond not being run over by a truck and avoiding too much liquor and caffeine. Once she was born this creature colonized my mind as well as my body. Thoughts of her, worries, prideful pleasures, hopes and fears, images and plans for the future occupied every inch of my brain. This preoccupation hangs on like a low-grade fever when I am at work or she’s at school or away on a sleep over. I’m convinced that my anticipation of dangers near and far keeps her safe. Now, as I give my function of protective hoverer over to her teachers, I expect to find a hole in my brain the size of the Grand Canyon.
Just as the bus is pulling out, the normal school day begins. I am jealous of the parents who will continue to live their everyday where-are-your-mittens- we’re-going-to-be-late-for-school life. Nothing has been wrenched away from them yet, or at least not today. I have just been inducted into a not-so-secret society of parents whose children who have headed into worlds beyond their control.
Of course it isn’t really this separation that looms so large in the minds of the misty-eyed parents around me but the ones ahead. The first separation sets a precedent. It develops a taste for freedom, an expansiveness that our children will want more of. If we are lucky, we will have only the natural leavings for sleep away camp, travel, college, and marriage rolling out ahead of us. The murkier, unspeakable separations, the ones not chosen or anticipated, stand by in the shadows. We wave good-bye to each other and say, “I’ll see you Friday.”
Sally Donaldson lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two cats. She is the mother of a 31 year old daughter and two stepchildren, all launched into the world. She is a psychologist in private practice in Greenwich village New York and a recent graduate of Stonecoast with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction.