SINGAPORE: This December, as Christmas jingles fill the air, a bittersweet note has crept into these giddy tunes for me. My only child will be starting pre-school in January.
Since the beginning of the month, somewhere in me, an internal countdown clock has started ticking away. I have visited her classroom, got her vaccinations in order, synced her naptime to that of her new school, tagged her water bottle and towels, and read and re-read two off-to-school books with her.
Yesterday, I finally picked up her school uniform.
And now, as the twinkling fairy lights bounce off their plastic wrapper, I am struck by the dull ache of anxiety and loss. In a few days, my 20-month-old baby girl will put on this oversized uniform and her tiny body will disappear into a sea of her peers.
SEPARATION ANXIETY AFFECTS PARENTS TOO
Yet, as her first day of school draws near, I feel pangs of separation anxiety.
Yes, while this heart-wrenching emotion is typically used to describe toddlers and young children, it can affect parents as deeply. There is just something so momentous about watching your child head off to school and step into the wide world alone.
Whether they are leaving the safety of the nest for pre-school, entering the formal education system at primary school, or progressing to secondary school where peers will have an increasingly larger influence on them, as a parent, one cannot help but feel like one is losing them a little at each point.
As American journalist and teacher Elizabeth Stone put it: Having a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. Letting go will always be a struggle.
Will my daughter be happy? Will she make good friends? Surely there will be moments when she will feel scared, stressed or alone?
My husband, being the official worrywart of the family, took it even further, running through plausible and implausible scenarios with my toddler as we gear up for the first day. His survival 101 tips include how not to be ostracised, how to deal with a bully, and how to avoid being kidnapped.
I blame Netflix’s teen flicks for many of my husband’s deep-seated fears. But the fears that parents have for the child’s first day of school are not all that far-fetched.
For one, many introverted children and youth do experience crippling social anxiety. Those transitioning from pre-school to a large primary school may also feel overwhelmed or isolated, and those entering secondary school may struggle to cope with being separated from old friends and having to make new ones.
Bullying is also not just a plotline from teen dramas. A survey commissioned by Mediacorp programme Talking Point found that three in four children and teenagers are victims of cyberbullying, and almost all kept it from their parents.
When my daughter was a baby, my first instinct had always been to remove these dangers from her path. But as she grows older, I wonder if it would be better to simply create a daily bonding ritual.
Perhaps a warm welcome home hug, and a cup of hot Milo together can be the balm she needs to soothe visible or invisible bruises.
It will also give me the opportunity to spot any red flags and celebrate the littlest milestones – such as her first excursion or personal painting.
In fact, my more experienced friend warned me that everyday tasks can prove challenging for our younglings.
As a primary school teacher, she noticed that toileting issues, sleepiness, money management and getting lost in school or on the way home are common for Primary 1 kids.
Many parents also worry that their children will not be able to keep up in school. Lining up enrichment classes and joining parental support chat groups are becoming the norm in most schools.
While I don’t have experience with such chat groups yet, a friend with primary-school-going kids tells me that messages come fast and furious, with topics ranging from homework to spelling lists and even feedback on teachers.
Expecting an “easy” Primary 1 with no examinations, she suddenly felt the pressure to “buck up”.
RESHAPING THE EXPERIENCE
Seeing a working mother like my friend, I cannot help but wonder when school became a tango-for-two?
Yes, it is important to adequately prepare our children for new challenges, routines and social environments.
But should we, as parents, be neck-deep in to-do lists to smoothen our children’s experience? Or is part of letting go accepting that our children will inevitably fail and fall down at times, and that growing up comes with bruises and tears, heartaches and disappointments.
Are we consciously or unconsciously passing on our anxieties and fear of failure to our children, underestimating our children’s capabilities, adaptability and resilience?
While it is understandable to feel anxious – I do too – perhaps it would be good to remind ourselves that our children’s vision of the world is greatly coloured by our lenses.
Whether they see school as scary or fun; challenges as stressful or exhilarating; and the world as a friendly or hostile place are largely shaped by us.
On my part, I am trying to see school as the first step to many great adventures.
I already know that mornings will be chaotic. Even getting everyone fed, dressed, packed and out of the house in time will require some hustling.
We won’t always get it right. Some days, we might be late or forget something. And some days, my daughter may come back with bruises or tears.
But that is all part of the process of growing up, which can be a messy, complicated, imperfect, painful, but ultimately a beautiful experience.
REDEFINING ROLES AND RELATIONSHIPS
Beyond that, the first day of school is a major milestone in my daughter’s life worth celebrating.
And with all major milestones, perhaps it is time to redefine my role and relationship with her.
Having put work, my social life, downtime and self-care on the backburner since she was born, I have decided to join the company of seasoned parents who count down to school reopening, when our children will have an alternative place to expend their boundless energy.
Hopefully, this will conserve some of my time and energy to grow as a person as well, so that over time, I too can evolve to be less of a protector and problem-fixer for her, and more of a worthy mentor and friend.
For now, I am celebrating this pivotal moment by giving her a ridiculous haircut with super short bangs to go with her comically oversized T-shirt. I have also fully charged my camera to sear this moment into family history.
Her school uniform may be too large for her now, but I have no doubt she will fill them out in both size and stature one day.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer, and the mother of a spirited one-year-old who fires up her imagination and inspires her to find her inner child.