Why am I sad that my daughter is starting kindergarten when she’s been in preschool for years?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s mom): You weren’t prepared for it.
MOLLY: Usually we answer questions submitted by our readers, but I have to admit, this is one of my own. I was shocked that I felt so sad.
DR. RUTHERFORD: I think it’s a very common experience that you had. You’re having ambivalent feelings about your children growing up and becoming more independent. Not only common: it’s normal. And it sounds like you weren’t quite ready for it when it happened and it really surprised you.
MOLLY: It confused me because I was excited for her to start school and honestly ready for the summer to be over.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, it’s true that you feel all of those things, but when you actually experienced it, when you waved goodbye to your daughter on the bus going off to school…You were just what? Struck by….?
MOLLY: I think it was the moment when… Well, we had prepped her the night before about riding the bus and she was nervous that she was going to get car sick, so we suggested that she try to sit in the very front of the bus. When she got on the bus she choose the very first seat, sat down, and looked out the window and started waving goodbye to me.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Oh, I could cry just hearing about it. You looked at her and you saw your vulnerable little child. Here she was going off into the world without her mommy or daddy to protect her. Off to her first day of school.
MOLLY: On the bus!
DR. RUTHERFORD: On the bus. Wow. Just even talking about it can make me well up.
MOLLY: I was so surprised that I had that reaction, and it took me the whole week to recover.
DR. RUTHERFORD: And you had been looking forward to her going off to school for months.
MOLLY: I know! I couldn’t wait for school to start.
DR. RUTHERFORD: The whole idea about ambivalent feelings is the ability to hold both sides of the feeling inside you at the same time. The ambivalent feelings for you were that on the one hand you were glad that you were going to have time to yourself and she was crossing this milestone and going off to elementary school, but on the other hand you were sad because you recognized that this was another step in her growing up and eventually moving away, so to speak. Away, in this instance, meaning out of the realm of only your influence.
MOLLY: When I told you that I got in my car and started crying you said, “You didn’t do that in front of your daughter, did you?”
DR. RUTHERFORD: (laughs) I did say that, didn’t I? Well, you don’t want young children to take the power of a suggestion and maybe start crying themselves when the time calls for them to be brave and venture forward on their own. She has to feel like her mom has confidence in her for going off by herself to school on the bus.
It’s perfectly fine to cry at moments like this, but best to hold it back in front of the child and project only confidence in their ability to navigate what lies ahead.
MOLLY: Yeah, I held it in until I got the car, but then I just lost it. I still can’t understand why I was feeling so upset.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Because you hadn’t anticipated having any feelings of sadness when this moment came?
MOLLY: Yeah, and for so long there have been so many things that I haven’t had the time to do. Not to mention my work… I have been so looking forward to finally having both kids in school and preschool and having my days free to get things done that it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be anything other than elated on that first day of school.
DR. RUTHERFORD: But it’s a recognition of the time passing. And as children get older and older, they get a little bit further away from their parents. Parents don’t have total control over them anymore. They’re exposed to teachers and classmates and have experiences that you’re not part of, and so that’s a real separation. There are some major separation times in a parent’s experience with children and this is one of them.
MOLLY: What are the others?
DR. RUTHERFORD: The others are when they transition to middle school, and then to high school. The biggest jolt is when they go off to college.
MOLLY: I remember you saying how hard it was when my sister and I left home for college.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Oh it was very hard. The whole year before you went off to college I must have cried every day, and I’m not a crier. I kept thinking about what it really means for a child to go off to school and not be part of the daily life of their parents’ home.
MOLLY: It has only been a couple weeks, but every day I can’t wait to pick my daughter up at the bus stop and find out what happened during her day. But I still find it weird because I really did not expect to feel this way.
DR. RUTHERFORD: I know, you surprised yourself. I wasn’t surprised for you though, honestly. Entering elementary school is a major transition in life for both a parent and the student.
MOLLY: I guess we don’t really realize how big of a moment it was because we were so young when we did it ourselves that we don’t remember the event and would have had no idea about how it affected our parents.
DR. RUTHERFORD: I don’t know if parents ever get used to these kinds poignant moments popping up as you live and raise a family. I think you’ll always remember this feeling that you had when you waved goodbye to that school bus.
MOLLY: I’m guessing there won’t be any long-term effects to mention?
DR. RUTHERFORD: No, there are no long-term effects because you allowed her to separate and continue along her path to becoming her own person. I think the issue boils down to the willingness to allow your child to grow up and separate at age-appropriate times.
The problem with not allowing for and encouraging age-appropriate separation is that the kid can end up feeling like the world is unsafe without the parent there because they don’t have age-appropriate experiences of being on their own and away from the parent. These children may be fearful and hesitant throughout their lives and grow to be timid adults.