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Nashville Scene Nursery School Daze

Baby's going bye-bye; Mama's got the blues

By Margaret Renkl

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  I'm not good at good-byes. To avoid saying good-bye, I actually stay in touch with people from my past whom I never especially liked, I squeeze my family into a long-outgrown house because it breaks my heart to think of leaving our neighborhood, and I bawl like a lost calf every time I have to spend a single night away from my husband.

This pathology goes back a long way; I don't think I've ever deliberately separated from anyone in my life. Not the boyfriend who routinely slept with other women. Not even the boyfriend who ultimately chose a man as his life partner. Like the Jackson 5, I never can say good-bye.

Sadly, my oldest child has inherited this affliction, a fact we first observed during the two years he was in Parents' Day Out. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, beginning when he was not quite 2, I'd walk him down the long white corridor to his brightly decorated, toy-bedecked classroom, and every Tuesday and Thursday morning his feet would slow down a little more, his hand in mine would grip a little more tightly. By the time we reached the classroom door, he'd be standing entirely behind me, his face pressed against the back of my thighs.

"Look, honey," I'd say brightly, "let's do this puzzle together before I leave." Or "Do you want me to color a picture with you before I have to go?" And he'd pull himself together enough to paint a little or make a couple of hotdogs out of Play-Doh while I sat jammed into the little chair beside him, trying to figure out what to do with my knees and my heart.

Always I'd be crying too by the time I finally reached my car and glanced toward his classroom window. Always he'd be standing right there, watching me drive away. I couldn't hear the sobs anymore, but I could see his tear-streaked face, his eyes almost swollen shut, his mouth a cavernous, open "O" of grief. The other children in his class would be standing around him gravely, watching while his kindhearted teacher lifted him up for a brave attempt to wave good-bye.

It's a wonder I didn't wreck the car. Every Tuesday and Thursday I spent the drive to school composing my letter of resignation from the faculty. On those days, if it hadn't been for the pesky matter of needing to pay for groceries, I would gladly have abandoned a career. I loved to stay home with a little boy I loved far more. But we had to eat, so instead I bullied my husband into doing the Tuesday-Thursday drop-off himself every chance he could. Afterward he cried on his way to work, too.

Then, abruptly, the wailing ceased. When our boy was 3, we moved him to a new school, a school he loved immediately. That year he barely bothered with a good-bye kiss; I'm not sure he even noticed when I left. I never found out what caused the change--maybe just a developmental readiness for group interaction he hadn't had before. All I know is that I always felt 20 pounds lighter when I pulled out of that parking lot.

Then I was pregnant with our second son, and I started seriously looking for work that meant I'd never have to leave him weeping at an institutional window. In time, the writing assignments started rolling in, and I actually mailed that letter of resignation.

For a couple of years I may have been the luckiest working mother in the world. When our third son came along and I needed help to meet the deadlines, I hired a wonderful sitter who entertained the kids a few mornings a week while I worked down the hall. I could hear the children playing in the sandbox just outside my office window. If one of them found an interesting bug or picked an early violet or stubbed a toe, I was right on hand with exclamations and kisses. No one ever stood at my office door and cried.

But like all lovely arrangements, it came to an end too quickly. Eventually our gift-from-God sitter took a better-paying job, one that actually made use of the college degree she'd worked hard to earn. I didn't blame her for leaving our cozy little nest, but I cried like a baby when the time came to say good-bye.

It was useless to look for someone just like her, someone who would show up on rainy days with a special art project in hand, someone who knew a singalong song for every occasion. How could such a person ever be replaced? So I was prepared to settle a little. When no suitable second-tier candidate appeared after a month of searching, I was prepared to settle a lot. Still no sitter. Desperate, I checked with the preschool where our first boy had been so happy, and the sympathetic director found a place for both of our younger sons. Gratefully, I signed them up. I tried not to think about what leaving their brother had been like.

Amazingly, Boy #2 loved his new school from the first minute he saw the huge playground and met his smiling teacher. I watched in shocked delight as he bounced over and talked to the same bad-tempered parakeet that had delighted his older brother, as he hung his little bag in the cubby and marveled over the miniature toilet in the bathroom. We walked back to the car at the end of that first morning, and he skipped beside me, exclaiming, "Thank you for my new school, Mama. Thank you for giving me this school."

Unfortunately, all the anti-good-bye genes reasserted themselves in the baby. By the second day of school, he'd figured out what was going on. He was crying when I left him and crying when I picked him up. At least my first boy had ceased to wail as soon as we got out of the school parking lot. This baby cried all the way home. All afternoon he rode around on my hip, gripping my waist with his knees and clutching a great wad of my blouse in his fist. He cried every time I tried to set him down in his crib or high chair. That night, exhausted with grief, he fell asleep an hour earlier than usual, then woke screaming five more times.

The next day and night were no better. The day and night after that, the same. If it weren't that my husband and other children were witnesses, I'd have suspected myself of suffering some sort of hallucinatory flashback: Was I unconsciously projecting grim images from the daycare past onto the clean, pure scrim of the present? No, it really was that bad.

Not that it couldn't have gotten better. Just because one of his brothers cried for two years doesn't mean this child would have cried for two years too. And leaving a kid exactly twice sure isn't giving Parent's Day Out the old college try. I admit that. I admit that I'm a good-bye wimp and very likely an overindulgent mother. What the long-term implications of that kind of overindulgence might be, I don't care to guess. I suppose all three of my boys could end up as warped as D.H. Lawrence, but I prefer not to think about that.

All I know is that when my baby turned his tear-slicked face toward mine, stretched up on tiptoes, and desperately reached his tiny hands high, high above him--I had no choice. I bent down, I lifted him up, I settled him onto my hip in that ancient, perfect fit between mother and child. I have no idea what I'm going to do now, but I do know this: Until he wants me to, I will not put him down.

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