The start of my first official school year as a parent has gone smoothly so far. JP wakes every morning excited about getting on the bus and going to a new school where learning is cleverly disguised as fun. He actually likes doing his homework with me every afternoon, and he is so tired by the end of the day that our normal hour-long bedtime ritual has been reduced to a few books that end long before my nighttime television begins. He has really adjusted beautifully to the changes that Kindergarten has brought to our household and I couldn’t be more proud.
Me on the other hand? Not so much.
I was warned The World of Kindergarten was markedly different than any of the other preschools I had sent JP to, especially in terms of access. Every other school-like experience of JP’s short life was designed around the idea that parents are not only a part of the classroom but essential to its operation. And I was happy to oblige in these cooperative settings by signing up to be class Mom and volunteering for every activity inside and outside the classroom. This burst of do-goodery doesn’t necessarily exhibit my eagerness to craft or, say, shuttle a group of 20 four-year olds onto a bus, but is more accurately a reflection of my fear that I won’t have any more children and that this is my only shot at motherhood. So I try to put my hands in as many pots as I can.
Veteran mothers have warned me that my level of involvement would be seriously restricted once JP entered Kindergarten and opportunities to be in his classroom would downgrade to two or three times a year. For whatever reason, I didn’t pay much attention to these cautionary tales and now I find myself reeling from the lack of information I have. I mean what exactly is he doing all day? Right now it’s 12:38 and while I know he is probably having lunch, I can’t help but wonder if anyone is there to make sure he isn’t eating his pretzels before his sandwich. It is these sort of thoughts that pop into my head all day long and what has been the source of more than one anxious phone call to a friend.
This internal dialogue has really shined a light on my control issues, which I believe have been thrown into overdrive (if not completely created) by motherhood.
Which is why the events of this weekend are worth sharing. I was out of state for two nights to attend a family wedding which we decided Jim would skip in order to care for JP. I knew the usual goals I aspire towards on weekends would be brushed aside in lieu of donuts for breakfast and marathon sessions of Cartoon Network, but it was the price I would pay for 48 hours of freedom and the luxury of closing a bathroom door. So when I arrived home Sunday evening I didn’t remark on the sink full of dishes, the unloaded dishwasher and the ring of encrusted sugar around JP’s happy lips but instead told Jim to take the night off while I got everything ready for upcoming school week.
“I took care of that,” Jim said, clearly proud that he had taken the initiative of going through JP’s school bag and taking on the task of homework.
A hint of panic crept into my chest. Not because Jim can’t handle something as elementary as tracing the letter F but because I had met JP’s teacher earlier that week at Back to School night and I already knew she was particular about how things were to be done and I knew what she wanted. In other words, I could do it better.
Jim produced the homework and to my complete horror it was a large sheet of paper titled “All About Me.” Oh no! I thought, that’s my job. I’m the one who is suppose to help create the narrative of my layered and complicated son. I wanted it to show that he is both funny and smart, that his interests are varied and that our family takes education seriously.
But that was far from the finished sheet that Jim showed me. It was filled with information I thought was either untrue or in desperate need of editing lest JP’s teacher feel compelled to call Child Services. For example, in the section titled “What I like to Read” Jim transcribed JP’s glib response verbatim: “I don’t like to read.” Huh? JP loves to read and I have sat with that child, book in hand, every day of his life, including the nine months he was in utero. Why would Jim write that down? I questioned. And why would he do it IN PEN?!?
It got worse. At the top of this page was an oval with the words “Self Portrait” above where JP was to draw a picture of himself. I guess my husband thought JP forgot what he looked like, or there wasn’t a mirror on hand at the time because he gave our son a picture of himself to use as his model. It was a very old picture where he didn’t have any hair, wasn’t looking at the camera and that cut him off just below the shoulder.
The resulting sketch?
The first thing you probably noticed were the breasts, right? Well, those are actually the shoulders that he was trying to copy from the 3-year old photo and I guess he hasn’t quite mastered the art of scale yet. Not that his teacher would know that. She probably thinks my son has transgender issues.
After the boobs you couldn’t help but note the really sad face on my son’s self portrait, correct? Again, that was his attempt at copying his face in the photo, one that isn’t sad but isn’t smiling either and I guess that is one in the same to a five year old.
The really large ears are a compensation for his then-bald head because JP was 2 at the time the photo was taken and his hair didn’t really come in until about 3. I understand that Jim probably didn’t have a picture of JP from that week at his disposal but I couldn’t help but wonder why my husband didn’t refer to the photo album on our living room coffee table? The one I spent over a week creating from an entire summer’s worth of photos. One that included a picture of JP from as recently as Labor Day.
I imagined JP’s teacher hanging this autobiographical travesty in the classroom for all the other kids to ponder the rest of the school year and I felt a deep sense of disappointment. Undoubtedly this assignment would have turned out a lot different if I had been the one who sat with JP, for when he described his favorite pastime as “Being a Ninja” I would have coaxed him into focusing on other activities like “Going to the park” or “Playing with LEGOs.”
But I wasn’t there. I was in Virginia enjoying a lavish wedding with some of my favorite cousins while my husband shuttled JP around a local festival which he later described as “totally awesome.” He was fixing a broken toilet while I was on my second proper cocktail of the evening, not a care in the world because I knew my family was safe and happy, if not entirely nourished. For 48 hours I had no control over anything that was going on back in New York and had to trust that my husband and son could manage without me.
And the same goes for Kindergarten. JP’s teacher will never get to know me the way his previous teachers’ have and she is the first of the many people JP will independently interact with outside of our home. From now on JP is in control of the message he sends to the world about who he is, where he comes from and what his family is like. All I can hope is that I’ve done a good enough job so that most people think he’s a good kid with caring parents who have taught him the importance of respect, manners and compassion. Parents who love him, man breasts and all.
Ellen Askin Bailey is a freelance writer, mother of one and owner of approximately 10 photo albums from JP’s childhood. She is a weekly contributor to mamasagainstdrama.com.
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