For the past four years, I have walked my kids to school every day. When Tommy was born, I went to part-time and the flexibility allowed me to take my kids to school and pick them up most days. Shawn walked them some mornings, especially as the kids got older and there were different preschool and elementary school drop offs that we needed to share. In fact, the last morning he had with them before he entered the hospital, we walked the kids to school together. We had to drive part of the way, but he soldiered on and we made sure to drop each of them with their respective classes. I still remember Claire’s teacher hugging Shawn that morning.
Once Shawn died, I couldn’t face the morning crowd of happy parents and kids. I definitely couldn’t face seeing the fathers with their children. I had so many family members in town for the first weeks that I could usually avoid walking the kids to school, and anyway, things were so totally out of whack that my kids didn’t question this other change in routine.
But eventually, I started to walk them to school again. I didn’t do it every day, but we had plenty of spring mornings this year where we’d all join hands and walk the few blocks to school. It’s easy to romanticize walking to school, but usually it meant cajoling everyone to walk faster and making sure they stopped dragging their backpacks on the ground. Still, I was glad when I got the chance to do it.
Last Friday, I did just that and headed with them to school on a beautiful morning. We got out the door and I walked with each of them for a bit, talking about the day and the upcoming weekend. Claire mentioned that her “open house” was coming up. This is a time when parents can come into the classroom in the morning and see what the kids are doing. Then Austin noted that I had forgotten to come to his last open house. “Why do you always forget, mom?” he asked.
“Austin,” I started, patiently, “you know I come when I can. I don’t usually forget. But some mornings I have to go to work early and I can’t come to your open house.”
He took this pretty well, I thought. But Claire really wanted to make sure I’d be there for her next open house. I assured her I would be. But then – probably because grief has made me into a parent that doesn’t always think before I speak anymore – I told her the news I’d been keeping to myself for months. I was going to full-time next year, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to walk them to school most mornings or attend most open houses.
“What???” she and Austin both asked with horror.
We were a hundred feet from their school and I knew instantly that I had made a tactical error by telling them about such a major change at this point in the day. I tried to explain. “Listen, kids,” I said, “you know that Mom has to make sure that we have all the things we need. This means that I have to work a bit more next year. Don’t worry, Grandpa Tom will be here to walk with you and most everything will be the same.”
“No it won’t!” Claire almost yelled at me. “Does this mean you won’t ever come to my open house?”
I tried to be evasive. I didn’t even know when fourth grade open house would be, I reminded her, and I was sure there would be plenty of times I could figure out how to alter my schedule to be there. “But, yes,” I said, “I will miss a lot of open houses.”
They were despondent and they let me know. I could feel the stares of other parents around us. They knew the feeling I was experiencing, because every parent who is pulled in different directions each day does. But the parents who surrounded me that morning also knew that I was dealing with much more than a missed open house.
How could I tell my kids that I need to be back to full time because I have to make sure that we will be okay? How can I get them to understand that although my employer is great, I still need to work a certain amount in order to get health care and that my work is a way of maintaining stability for them? How can I tell them what it means, logistically, to be in charge of three little people who depend on you – and only you – every moment?
How can I share the realities of my world, so they can understand why I’ll be missing open house, while also making sure they don’t get too worried about our family? It’s a heavy burden for me to carry. I don’t want them to carry it too.
But they will, at least a little bit. The reality is, our new life is not like what our old life once was. We are lucky because I do have a stable job and we have some life insurance that will make it so we can stay in our house. But we also have to make choices now that we may not have had to make before.
As we arrived at school, I pulled Claire’s teacher aside and told her what was going on. She looked at Claire, and Claire told her she wanted to go and see the counselor immediately. Her teacher looked at me, and I knew she understood exactly what I was feeling – at least the mom-guilt part of it.
“Claire,” she said, “you know that I was a teacher in the same school as my kids when they were growing up. But I couldn’t always go to things in their classrooms. I had to be with my own students. Remember that fourth grade doesn’t have as many open houses and I’m sure on special days your mom will be able to come to some of them.”
I reassured Claire that her teacher was right. It helps that Claire adores her teacher and so in that moment she looked just a little bit less like she was going to cry.
I hugged her and the teacher gave me a knowing glance. “It will be okay,” she said with her eyes.
I walked away from the school, past parents who bunched together in groups, talking about the dramas and mundane details of their days. “It will be okay,” I said to myself, thinking of all of the books I’ve read about the importance of building resilience in kids.
“They will be okay,” I actually said out loud as I took one look back at their school.
Image Credit: Becky Hale.