When my daughter Abbey’s first day of school arrived, I was absolutely confident it was going to be great.
There was simply no reason not to expect smooth sailing. This is the kid who said, "I've been to kinder, now I'm ready for school" after her orientation session for three-year-old preschool; the kid so ready for school she was almost bursting with the unfairness of having to wait until now.
Her first day of school is something she's been looking forward to for two years, and all the boxes are ticked neatly. She's been nothing but positive about it, she knows the school well from weekly visits with preschool over the past year, she’s already friends with most of the kids in her class, she hugs the teachers and chats to the principal when she sees them, and she has the loveliest buddy whom she adores.
So I thought it was going to be a happy and fun day. It wasn’t.
We mistook sickness for nerves and over-excitement, and so she was bawling as we sent her into class. I left in tears: "This isn't how it was meant to be," I wailed to my husband. "This is all wrong."
Rule one of parenting: trust your instincts. In hindsight, I should have scooped her up and taken her straight home. But the problem when you’re in a new situation is you don’t really know what to expect. Abbey had never been excited about something for so long and building up expectations in her head, so although she isn’t a nervous kid, well, you just never know.
It was the worst morning. The feeling that we needed to work through some major concerns and nervousness with her was scary. Despite having my husband and friends around me, I felt alone in having to deal with this unexpected chaos in our lives. I spent that time wondering how I could have got it so wrong, why I hadn’t picked up on some signals somewhere along the way. It was an unpleasant insight into how the mums of many kids who struggle with the first day of school must feel: like a failure.
Still, we assured ourselves she'd be fine once class got going. But she wasn't. We picked her up with the news she'd been lying on the floor almost falling asleep, and her pale face was drawn and exhausted. I carried her home and she threw up before sleeping the rest of the day.
No, this wasn't a kid who was over-excited and nervous, this was a sick kid. We'd just sent her to her first day of school unwell, and I felt - feel - like the worst mum in the world. Mother guilt times infinity.
"Everyone thought you were nervous," I explained as I apologised for making her go. "I'm not nervous about school," she said. "I was sick!" Sorry, darling.
Ultimately, I had to get over my guilt (or at least tuck it away) and turn it around to positivity. "That was just a practice session," I said. "Monday is the real first day, and it's going to be so great."
Because of our first experience, I broke all the rules the second time around. Knowing she didn’t have nerves, I talked about how exciting it was going to be, being at school feeling well and able to enjoy her “real” first day. I built it up, preparing special treats and her favourite meal for the end of her first day. They say to downplay this big event in your child’s life but, damn it, we’d earned the right to milk all the enjoyment out of this day.
It went exactly as I’d imagined. She woke well-rested, ate a good breakfast and happily got ready, before walking up to school excitedly. When we arrived she wandered around with her buddy, then lined up for class, chatting excitedly with her friends. And she walked into the classroom with a wave and a smile.
And I stood there for a moment, staring at the door as though I could see her happy face through it, and I grinned. That’s how it was meant to be.
I experienced both sides of the fence during Abbey’s start to school: the worst case and the best. It’s a relief to know that I was right not to expect any problems, that I hadn’t missed the telling signals and that my instincts were spot on. It’s another lesson, though, in listening to those gut feelings and always, always put my kids ahead of the expectations we hold of them. Luckily, she’s bounced back and all’s well that ends well.
I was confident that my daughter’s first day of school was going to be wonderful. And it was – on the first day I’m counting, anyway.