Last year, when my oldest child went to kindergarten, I sat in the parking lot on the first day of school and I didn’t cry. I thought about crying. A few other moms had cried in the classroom and in the hall as we left. I smiled, trying to register an emotional look on my face. But really, I just wanted to leave.
Sitting in the parking lot, I felt defective. Did I need to cry? Did I want to cry? Was something wrong with me? I searched my soul and found nothing but relief. So, I stopped thinking about it and got coffee, went home, and started working.
This year I didn’t cry at the first day of school either, which marked the passage of my children into first grade and pre-k. I don’t cry at graduations. I don’t cry on birthdays. Instead, I embrace the relief. Every passing year means things are a little easier. My kids can put on shoes and rinse dishes. I can leave them alone while I pee. Sure, I miss chubby baby wrists, but I love sleeping all night.
While women are allowed and have the right to feel their feelings and publicly display them in whatever manner they deem necessary, the overwrought nature of back-to-school sentimentality is more than just a moment of mourning for our babies-no-more—it’s a cultural trope that reinforces repressive ideals of motherhood.
No other occupation, even fatherhood, became as twisted up in the emotional and spiritual attachments of human relationships. So many of my friends have quit their jobs because home is more fulfilling and children are their most important job. Which, that may be true for them. But in doing so, these women are celebrated and lauded as selfless. There are no Hallmark cards for women who gleefully profess to find their work to be emotionally fulfilling. There are no “showers” when you achieve your dream job. I’m not the first to point this out. And I won’t be the last until it changes.
But this isn’t about creating a dichotomy of women who are sad at the beginning of school versus the women who are happy. Life is not a binary. Both things are allowed to be true. And she who has never wistfully remembered a pudgy baby snuggle while fighting with a first grader over whether it’s okay to call people "poopfaces" can cast the first stone. But our grief rituals over back-to-school are located in the forced sentimentality of motherhood, which keeps us chained to the myth that our identities are located within the output of our uterus and not who we are as people.
Before children, I loved the ritual of back-to-school. And with children, I love it still. Because it marks a new year with new skills and new freedoms for me. It also marks the overwhelming privilege of having two kids who are learning and growing...and will one day be able to make dinner for themselves.
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