The unbearable unbearableness of preschool

Isaac has a new evening ritual: The Asking of The Question. “Where we going tomorrow?” he’ll inquire, all innocent like, but Rachel and I know where this is heading. Mostly, we are able to answer either that he’s going to spend the day with his longtime babysitter or that we’re having a family day. And he — quite literally — shouts “YAY!” and throws his arms in the air for joy. And then he says, "And after that, where we going? And after that?" He keeps up this line of questioning we reach the answer he's been angling for. And then, there is no shouting of the YAY. There is no throwing of the arms in the air for the joy. Because, eventually, we do have to concede that Isaac will eventually have to head off to war preschool.

And then comes the mourning, the sobbing, the telling us repeatedly how much he does not want to go to preschool, how he doesn’t like it, how he wants to stay home with us or go to the babysitter. Last night, he sobbed himself to sleep. Then, at 5:30 this morning, he appeared in my bedroom doorway to pick up where he left off. “Mommy,” he said, “I don’t want to go to preschool.” He said it over and over, and then it would dull down for a little while as he almost let himself — and me — fall back asleep before jerking himself awake lest he relax and sleep and hasten the arrival of morning and the dreaded preschool. “I know, honey,” I keep telling him. “I know you don’t want to go. I know.”

Over the course of the morning he seemed to begin to resign himself to the thought that you might actually have to go. It was like moving through the stages of grief: from denial (“I don’t want to go to preschool.” I know.) to anger (“I don’t want to go to preschool!” I know, honey.) and bargaining (“But can I bring my blankie to preschool?” Of course you can, sweetheart.) to depression (“I don’t want to get out of bed today to go to preschool. I’m too tired to go to preschool.” Well, of course you are, because you woke up at five in the morning and have been protesting about preschool ever since.) and, finally, acceptance (“Will you tell me on the clock when I can go home?”).

YAY!

Fortunately, Rowan was available to add some levity to the situation. At first, he was solicitous and sweet, bringing his brother teddy bears and blankets and offering hugs and wise counsel: “I didn’t like junior kindergarten when I first started, but it got better.” When that didn’t work, he resorted to scatological humor, with much more success: “Isaac, are you going to bring POO to preschool? Are you going to bring YOUR BUM to preschool? Are you going to bring PEE to preschool?” Normally I try not to pay attention to the potty talk, but, given that it was the first time I had seen Isaac crack so much as a smile in 12 hours, I played right along. The reprieve didn’t last, though, and Isaac trudged tearfully into the beautifully appointed preschool classroom with its fishies and magic wands and natural lighting and oatmeal with raisins and coloured water. COLOURED WATER! What’s not to like, right? The best I can say about the morning was that at least he managed to walk into the room of his own accord, and that I didn’t hear screaming as I exited the building. I remembered my friend Scott’s comment about leaving his son at daycare lo these many years ago: “Maybe the saddest thing in the entire world is a child who is waving goodbye and crying at the same time.”

It’s classic (isn’t it? Say yes.). I know he’s fine at preschool. I know it’s a nice place, full of lovely, caring teachers, beautiful play areas, wonderful food. I mean, I’d spend the day there if I could. I know he eats well and naps there. I even have proof — in the form of photographs taken by the teachers of him enjoying various activities in an effort to convince him that he actually might like preschool — that he has fun there, at least some of the time. But it’s still just so, so sad to have my little boy — my usually happy little boy — be so, so sad.

I ache for him. I really do. I get — or, at least, I assume I get — how much his little world revolves around security, around the familiar. He’s all about the comfort zone, is Isaac: his mommies, his babysitter, his brother, his blanket, his thumb. With enough of those props in place, he’s set, outgoing, everybody’s sweetheart. He does funny little shuffling dances and proffers kisses, asks questions, offers his help. But he doesn’t feel safe yet, apparently, at preschool. And thus he mourns. And I ache for him.

Mostly, though, I ache at the amount of time he spends grieving for the future, his sorrow for the thing that is about to happen. I ache at all the non-preschool hours, hours that could be spent perfectly happily, but that instead are spent anticipating with horror the next day’s events. He’s awfulizing, as my friend Monica likes to call it, living in the future, and a bleak future at that. It’s a skill that I have, sadly, perfected, one that I now spend much of my time trying to get less good at. But I am pushing 40 and Isaac is three, much too young to be envisioning a hopeless tomorrow. “Honey,” I keep saying to him, “right now we’re not at preschool. Right now, we’re going to bed. Right now, we’re fine.” I want him to Be Here Now, and he spends every minute of Now trying to impress upon me the urgency of the fact that he does not want to go Somewhere Else Tomorrow.

This, too, will pass. It will. It must. I’m envisioning a positive future here. Maybe someday soon my son will, too.