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When I became a mother at the ripe old age of 22, I was so absolutely naive. “I will always protect this baby. I’ll keep her safe from harm,” I told myself. And I honestly, earnestly, meant it.

Then a second baby, another daughter came along, two years later, and I made the same vow. I would be there to keep our two baby girls safe. I could do it because I was, after all, their mother. And presumably, mothers are omnipotent.

A bit older and wiser with the third baby – yes, another daughter – I had come to realize that I could try to be their ever-watchful, ever-vigilant defender. But there was no guarantee of success.

And then it happened: first Jill, then Amy, then Nancy, started school. Not “big school,” as they had come to call the local elementary school, but a sweet little nursery school just two miles from our home. That was when this mother got a stunning wake-up call: The jig was up.

No longer could I be their everything. No longer could I believe that just by wanting to so badly, I could keep my three little students safe from the slings and arrows of real life.

School is, of course, beyond the sanctuary of home. School is “out there,” where well-meaning, even loving teachers, can sometimes misunderstand a child who’s just not thriving or one who misses the familiarity of the known.

School means learning to care about others, to share, to think you have a best friend forever only to find that you don’t.

I think some of my most painful moments in all of mothering came when someone hurt my children I love so deeply that finding the words to explain the feelings is impossible. How can a presumably sane and sensible mother carry a grudge against the little boy in second grade who tripped Jill deliberately, just for the sport of it?

To my shame, I could – and did – carry that grudge.

How can that same mother learn how to comfort a child left out of the fourth grade club that the “cool girls” were forming? And what is the right thing to say or do when a 13-year-old daughter – that often-awful age for girls – rushes in from school sobbing because her best friend is moving across the country?

We parents of my generation had no internet. We had Dr. Spock, each other and, if we were lucky, mothers who could help us through the really awful times that the school years – and childhood itself – sometimes brought to our doorsteps.

The good news: Our three daughters got through their childhoods, their endless adolescent years and those last school years when they were turning into exactly the delightful companions we wished could stay with us just a little longer.

And then came the college years and an entirely new landscape of issues and challenges without us presumably as the first line of defense.

If kindergarten was treacherous transitional turf – and it was – college was exponentially more so.

Of course, those “kids” are presumably more mature and ready to take the bumps. But are they? Is the panic about failing a final, or not getting into that sorority or fraternity they so yearned to join, the baggage they bring home at the first fall break? Yes, these school years can be complicated, rugged terrain.

But to you parents who are sending off a child to nursery school or graduate school, I wish you the wisdom to know what you can and what you can’t do to ease their way. And if you find that you hurt when your kids are hurt or when they’re frustrated or disappointed, you’re normal and human.

They almost surely won’t get through their school years unscathed. And chances are you won’t either. Welcome to parenthood, the hardest job you’ll ever love – and hopefully honor.

September 2017
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