school picsEllie, our super sassy, spunky 5-year-old has come into her own personality these last few months. Her awareness of the world, herself, and Michael and I are both impressive and scary.  A few weeks ago while sitting at the kitchen table, Michael noted how grown Ellie looks, “It’s like in the last 2 weeks she has gone from being a tiny child to a little girl,” he said.

There are so many unfortunate effects Charlie’s death has had on Ellie.  Her protective bubble in the world, burst prior to her even knowing it existed.  The fragility of life is a mantra she carries with her.  These are the things that when I think too much about them, bring me to tears of anger and rage if I let them.  

Ellie plowed through the developmental stage of childhood bliss. And while, yes it sucks, it comes with a strong sense of awareness I take for granted. She “gets” things that most don’t, accepting change far better than us… including COVID.

COVID has rocked our world.  As adults, we want normalcy for our families, our careers, our finances, and ourselves (Legit, I want a date night and a weekend getaway like nothing else).  But we act out, get mad and push against change because we feel the burden of how our adult world is affecting our children.  We want our children to go back to school, to their extracurricular activities, and to hugging their grandparents and friends.  We just want our kids to do the normal kid things.

Since March I have placed subconscious blinders on Ellie. She has been few places apart from our community pool, on our street, and in our yard. Of course, our ultimate goal was to limit exposure to COVID, but in truth, I think we also hoped to shield her from the world.  We didn’t want her to have to adapt to her surroundings, that’s what adults are supposed to do, not kids. 

As we have been preparing for school to start, we have waited in anticipation to know whether or not she would be able to attend in person.  For any parent, your child heading off to kindergarten is a big deal. But for this momma, it has been an emotional overload. Kindergarten is the next milestone for Ellie and the first major milestone we faced with empty arms after Charlie’s death.  I have been in agony, worrying about seeing Ellie start kindergarten, hoping it wouldn’t be taken from us a second time. 

Last week, I took Ellie on her first “real” outing since March, back to school shopping. It was an attempt to experience a “normal” activity in a very abnormal time in our world. Approaching each store, I prepared myself to remind her to put her mask on and make sure to give others plenty of space.  But each time, she did it all on her own. She wasn’t nervous or agitated that she had to wear a mask or keep her distance from others.  She just accepted it.

At one point we stopped for lunch at a local soda shop. When we reached our table, I said to her “While we are at our table, you can take your mask off,” ripping mine off the moment we sat down. After thinking about it, Ellie responded, “I would feel better leaving it on until we eat.”  It was then I realized she had been watching and listening to us this whole time. I didn’t need to tell her to put her mask on, give people space, or see the importance of doing what’s right even when it’s hard. She already knew. Ellie was adaptable, I was the one that was struggling.

I know now, I have been doing Ellie a disservice.  I have not acknowledged her strong sense of awareness, her ability to adapt. We are living in a community of compromise, one where we are all a piece of the puzzle.  We wear our masks, stand 6 feet apart, wait for our turn, clean surfaces, limit the time and number of people in a space, all to show we care about one another.  I have sheltered her from the community of compromise, not because she can’t adapt but because I hate that she has to.  I want her to be the kid – carefree and me, the shield – the protector of her childhood. But I think I have it all wrong. She is adaptable. I am the one on the struggle bus. 

Ellie had her first day of school last week and while she is very fortunate to be attending school in person, nothing looks further from a kindergarten classroom. The colorful rugs, communal toys and manipulatives, tables, and cozy chairs have been removed and replaced with bare floors, desks in rows 6 feet apart, and a personal box of supplies, not to be intermixed with your friends’ sitting across the room from you. The children, almost on their own islands, are sharing a classroom. However, playing in close proximity, hugging, or sharing toys isn’t permitted. And their banter is muffled by the mask they must wear at all times. It is absolutely not the kindergarten experience I hoped for.  And “seeing it” at least how it plays out in my mind makes me tear up.  I am a kindergarten teacher at heart.  Wouldn’t homeschool kindergarten, where I can hug on her, be better than the kindergarten classroom of 2020? 

But Ellie wasn’t affected by how the classroom looked or the modifications of the school day. She was excited and looking forward to a new start in kindergarten. So I had a choice, a choice to share my feelings with her or to keep my mouth shut. I chose to keep it shut, letting her acceptance take the lead and my fears to be silent.

Starting school has been a leap of faith for all of us this year, regardless of what each of us has decided is best for our families. It looks different, feels different and we don’t particularly like it. But we are doing it. As I dropped Ellie off on her very first day, I asked her “Ellie how are you feeling about school today?”  And with a moment of pause, she replied, “A little nervous and a little happy.” As usual, a spot-on response.

I took a few breaths and thinking to myself, she’s got this. And I need to listen and learn from my child, all children. As adults, we don’t like change, uncertainty, and doing things out of routine.  And it shows in our actions and words, even when we know it’s the right thing. But our children are listening. They can feel when we get uptight and agitated. They watch our responses to change, how we pivot or if we don’t.  And that’s the barometer they use moving forward.  Let’s give them positive responses, an “it’s ok!” “We got this” not angst and doom. Because we will be ok. The transition might be tough, but we will make it through.

Looking back at Ellie in the rearview mirror, and smiled and responded “I think you said it absolutely right. I feel the same way… a little bit nervous but so happy for you.”  And with that, she hopped out of the car.