Let go of me!

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The other day my toddler fell down the stairs.

He tumbled from about half way up and rolled uncontrollably down each step, slapping his podgy belly on the cool wooden floor of the landing.

I'd been carrying in a basket of washing not too far behind him, but hadn’t seen it coming and I couldn't stop him. I was too late.

Throwing the washing to one side, I rushed to scoop him up and check he was okay.

He drew long sobs on my shoulder, pointed at the offending step behind us and wailed something I can only assume meant: "that stupid thing really really hurt me."

Given the week that was about to follow, I wish I could've cuddled him there on that step forever. I wish I didn't know what else would be hurting him in the days ahead.

After months of procrastination and budgeting and researching and visiting, my baby was due to start his first day of daycare and, naturally, I was heartbroken about it.

It was kind of ridiculous really. The whole “daycare” thing was completely initiated by me. We wanted to have him settled somewhere before his baby brother arrived in April. That way I could have a few days toddler-less to bond with my newborn and he could have a few days of activity and predictability. Still, the closer his starting day got, the more devastated I started to feel.

I knew he’d be anxious. He’d be looking for me. He’d want his mum there to cuddle him if he fell, to make him giggle and to sooth him to sleep. Afterall, we’d been doing that kind of stuff together ever since the day he was born.

I couldn’t bear the thought of separating him from me, especially when I wouldn’t be able to explain to him what was going on. He wouldn’t understand, he’d be distraught.

Couldn’t I always be there to scoop him up and tell him everything was okay? Couldn’t I forever be at the bottom of those stairs, anticipating the fall?

The day before Ashton started daycare I was so emotional about it all that I could barely look at the kid without tears forming in my eyes. That night I cuddled into my husband’s chest with huge sobs overtaking me (yep, poor man just had to take it). I kept thinking back to the newborn days with Ashton, when I had no commitments. It was me and him, he and I, cuddling on the couch, keeping up with netflix and not much else.

Oh how I had taken all those sweet moments for granted. Could I go back?

The morning arrived and I tearfully packed his lunchbox. He, of course, was as charming and well-behaved as he’d ever been. How could I leave such a sweet boy in the hands of strangers?

If you’re planning on starting daycare with your child, here’s how I got through:

  1. Do your research on all the centres in your area.

  2. Schedule plenty of visits (at least six over the space of a few weeks).

  3. Pack your child a lunch with plenty of goodies you’ll know they’ll enjoy on their first day.

  4. Cry to your partner and don’t feel bad about it.

  5. Tell your mum about how you’re feeling. She’ll say “put on your big girl pants and suck it up” and you’ll feel slightly cheesed off she didn’t give you the response you were anticipating.

  6. Take your mum’s advice anyway and plan to say “Bye Ashton, you’re going to have a great day today”, smile and wave good-bye.

  7. Think about how you’ll probably end up crying uncontrollably in front of your child instead and make things 100 times worse.

  8. Think about all the things that could potentially go wrong while your child is away from you.

  9. Think about how much you’ll miss him when he’s not around.

  10. Convince your husband to take the day off work and do the drop-off instead.

So what happened on Ashton’s first day of daycare?

Well, as detailed above, after all that anxiety I punked out and made my husband do the first drop off.

And Ashton was amazing. Ashton didn’t cry all day.

He was so incredible, in fact, that the daycare ladies called it the best first day they’d ever seen. He was so awesome, they said, it was almost weird. He didn’t cry once.

So I bawled my eyes out. My baby was independent and completely fine without me. The only separation anxiety that had occurred during the whole ordeal was from me, not him. It made me proud, but also sad. I was the one who had slipped at the top of those stairs. Step by step.

I disclosed these feelings to my mum that night, expecting a little bit of empathy, but all I got was: “You know this is just the beginning, right?” I should’ve anticipated this after the “big-girl-pants” comment from the night before.

“Think of his first day of school. Think of his first broken bone. Think of the first date or his first love and his first heartbreak. Think of when he leaves home. Rach... raising a child is just one big long journey of learning to let your baby go.”

Crap. She was right.

I thought back to those newborn days again, when my midwife had planted on my chest for the very first time this perfect, little, dependent baby. I had wanted to keep him there forever. But regardless, day by day he had fostered independence. He’d learned to reach for the toy. He’d learned to crawl a few feet forward. He’d learned to walk, to run, to chat and to charm. Every second of my parenting journey had been about him learning how to manage without me.

Where was I during those times? I was encouraging him and showing him how proud I was at his accomplishments. I was saying “try again”, and “almost” and “Woah that’s a lot of poo. Good boy.” I was scooping him up and cuddling him and telling him that I’d love him, no matter what.

I was letting him go.

Besides, for all my harping on about how great the first year and a half of my parent journey had been, when I thought about it more, I realised I was really only focusing on the good parts. Sure, I landed a flexible-hour job, I took him along to work meetings, I found a child-friendly bootcamp, I took him to community playgroups. But as he grew into the adventurous, busy, little soul he is, I struggled to keep up with it all.

I started to stress if he woke early from a nap because I couldn't get work done. I got frustrated because he whined during my workouts. I ended up switching the telly on way too often just so I could have ten minutes (okay, an hour) to myself. I couldn’t pretend things had been absolutely, overwhelmingly, developmentally perfect. They hadn’t. That’s life. Daycare would now help us both to have time apart in the areas we were currently falling short.

I’d been so focused on Ashton’s anxiety and discomfort that I hadn’t even thought to check in on my own. Now I could see that it wasn’t always healthy to hold on to him, nor was it healthy to expect the worst before it had actually happened. To a certain extent, I just had to go with it. I had to let myself tumble down the stairs, knowing I’d be okay on the other side, no matter what happened.

If we never started to climb the stairs, and if we never had a fall (or several), I don’t feel we’d ever truly appreciate how great it feels to be at the top.

I thought I was already teaching my child about this, but as it turns out, he was teaching me as well.

Funny that.

Rachel Chen