Goodbyes Are Hard: A Mother’s Many Feelings at School Drop-Off

by Ariella Prince Guttman

Photo credit: Jasper Cole/Getty Images

As a parent, certain daily rituals are subtle but consistent, like the satisfying click of a car seat seatbelt. You know the sound – or sounds, of multiple clicks are required. Some mornings can seem like a struggle to get to the point of hearing that click! The drive to school with my daughter is part of our routine, and with that comes our system. Once we’re in the car and buckled up, we count how many school busses we see on the way and spell the word STOP when we approach stop signs. Once we get to school and unclick (another parenting accomplishment), my daughter climbs out, puts her backpack on, and happily runs up the stairs to meet her teacher.

I return to the car – sometimes it’s quiet, and sometimes the song she requested is still playing (it’s usually “Drive My Car” as sung by Elmo)The next song on the playlist often comes on, and before I realize it, I’m unknowingly singing along. Sometimes, the whole day feels like it’s gone by already, and yet, thankfully, so many hours still lie ahead.  And sometimes, for those short moments before my brain starts running through my to-do list, I experience a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s a mix of relief, anxiety, anticipation, heartsickness, and maybe accomplishment? I know — it’s a strange combination. Perhaps it’s just called parenthood. I feel parenthood.

As I feel this strange combination of emotions, I try to remember it’s OK to celebrate and enjoy the small but meaningful moments, like getting my daughter to school. This pandemic year was her first in an actual school environment, and I was fortunate to take her while working from home. Our morning routine is a rare and precious time that I cherish.

When I was pregnant with my son last year, time with my daughter felt extra special, knowing that it might be different once he was born. I wondered how she would adjust, if their schedules would align (he was a newborn, so no – what schedule?), and if I would be awake enough to get myself out of the house? I quickly learned that with a second child, I didn’t have much choice! But luckily, from the moment we brought my son home from the hospital, my daughter was utterly in love with her brother. She was supportive of the time I needed to spend with him and mostly adjusted to her new school schedule nicely.

My daughter loves school and the fun programs, her friends, and caring teachers she has there, but staying on track at home can be challenging. Our morning drop-off isn’t difficult for her — I’m the one who experiences that mix of emotions, not my big girl. I spend the early morning trying to keep her on track while keeping my son entertained and in a clean diaper. And then, when I drop her off, I miss her. I know she’s having the best time learning new things and that I’ve got a full and busy day ahead. But sometimes, I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see her smiling face. That’s how I got the idea for my book, Wherever You’ll Be. I wanted her to know (and reassure myself) that while we spent our days apart, my love is always there, and she’s always in my thoughts.

Parenting is never easy, and this past year has been especially challenging with so much change and the complicated school situations. But for me, there was joy in those extra moments with my kids that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. If the trade-off for me is to feel some separation while she’s at school, I’ll take that any day. And I try to revel in that car seat click and enjoy pointing out a school bus when I see it down the road – because getting her to school also means I got her to school! So bring on that car seat click, and my day ahead.