September 7, 2016 by Katia
On the first morning of kindergarten Daniel’s name tag was missing its safety pin and that threw us both off. I wish I could add with certainty: me, more than him.
Daniel is how we call an incredibly sweet, petite sized but long-legged, bushy-haired cub-child who just turned four last month. This external overload of sweetness masterfully hides mystery, mischief (that’s not entirely true, it’s not always as effective at hiding that) and grownup emotions like concern and compassion. I don’t always understand that little thing that goes by Daniel, but I usually get what it feels like to be him. I know that in Daniel’s world order is very important. Daniel was lining up cars in a pattern, clear only to him, ever since he was a toddler. If someone dared move a car not only would Daniel know about it, but he would also get incredibly upset. You should never change the words to a song if you’re singing it with Daniel. Capable of extreme silliness under normal circumstances he could throw a terrible, tearful tantrum if you tease him on your car ride to Montreal by replacing the word “papa” with “blah blah” in the famous poem about Johnny and his father, just ask Daniel’s older brother, Ben. At the beginning of every bedtime Daniel issues a statement about what’s on the agenda (reading three/one/seven books, playing a game on TVO Kids, eating and drinking and going to bed) and in what order. Order, to him, must correspond with a deeper need like predictability and safety – that’s Daniel 101.
Part of the mystery that presents itself as Daniel is the contradiction between what he used to be and what he is now. I once wrote an essay about how Daniel overcame his shyness. My youngest used to not want to open his mouth at the doctor’s office to say “AH” since that, to him, constituted a conversation and at the time he seemed terrified of any interaction of that kind. At the clinic he would diligently lift his shirt, breathe in and out, hold his breath and dutifully follow every other strange request issued by the pediatrician, but “AH” is where things would come to an abrupt end. Daniel eventually overcame his shyness. This summer he willingly put on his miniature blue sandals with whales and baseball cap and attended camp at his new school. His excitement built up over the summer and by the last week of the holiday he was offering his two cents – solicited and unsolicited — whenever the popular topic “are you excited to start junior kindergarten?” came up.
Yesterday morning we walked an excited Daniel and a somewhat anxious Ben to school. On our way there Excited Daniel confided, confirmed, posed, cheesed and demonstrated said sentiment in every possible way. He let excitement cover his words, seep into his actions and spill out of him as a variety of broken, long-limbed dance moves. A busy beehive greeted us at the entrance to his classroom. A net of hands, bodies, voices, backpacks must have all intertwined into one big and menacing mass. His grip grew tighter, his shoulders stiffened, his expression became emotionless and he retreated into that familiar space within where he used to hide so often. To pull him out of there I decided to offer the comfort of something familiar and loved. Here’s a table with name tags. Here are lots of letters that you can recognize and names you can spell out. Can you recognize yours? A glimmer of light in his eyes. He finds his name tag but it’s missing a safety pin. So lucky we already know your name, the teachers offer. Let’s fix that. When I ask if he’s okay he quietly tells me that he wants his name tag, always one to identify a solution to his own problems and clearly state his will. I have to leave him and go see his brother off to grade two. When I come back he’s in the classroom and preoccupied with the right way to hang his backpack on the hook that has his name underneath it. He waves goodbye and he’s probably moved on, but at home I keep thinking about the safety pin and whether I should bring one when I pick him up at lunch break. When it comes to Daniel I don’t always get the “why” part but I do know when something is important, and the name tag is, because it’s letters and it’s order and it’s how things should be. I try to put the issue to sleep but my mind keeps wandering back to the safety pin.
As soon as I post the mandatory first day in kindergarten picture accompanied by the story of the safety pin a couple of dear loving friends respond. Something to the effect that I’m a good mother. My heart responds with its own mandatory mix of gratitude and pain. Gratitude for my loving friends who I feel can’t always see me for who I really am, au naturel, without a flattering aura-creating light behind me, and pain for the same reason.
Most of the time I don’t feel like a good mom. Maybe it’s our brain’s negative bias. We tend to pay more attention to and somehow become more emotionally invested in the negative. Maybe it’s not living up to my own expectations. I never let people see my anger. Why should my kids and immediate family be the only ones privy to that? When people tell me that I’m a good mom I mostly feel ashamed for managing to throw them off. Then I remind myself of the impostor syndrome and that this is how I feel whenever I’m complemented on my work, writing, friendship. Maybe I am good enough? I believe it when I hear it from my kids in words like “mom, you’re unique” and unexpected kisses and hugs. Yesterday it took good friends and a safety pin.
When Daniel came home for his lunch break yesterday with a fixed name tag he told me that school was “a lot of fun”, yet when I said it was time to go back to school he refused. I was thrown off. How come? Didn’t it go well?
I don’t want to go back to school because I don’t want to return my name tag. I want to keep it.
I knew the safety pin was important. And just like that I was a good mom again.
I struggled with naming this post. I thought of “Not a Good Mom” but felt like it didn’t reflect the content of the post nor the whole truth. I disappoint myself a lot as a mom but I constantly strive to be better and that makes me a good enough mom. It was hard to write about that sense of shame that I experience whenever people refer to me as a good mother but I think it’s important to share those truths. The book So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood was released a couple of weeks ago. It includes the essay that I briefly mentioned here about Daniel overcoming his shyness, but this is not the only reason that it’s important to me. The HerStories Project, a movement led by Stephanie Sprenger Smith and Jessica Smock (the editors of the book) created a platform where women can honestly share their sometimes less than stellar experiences as mothers without fear of judgment.