Teachers Are Gods

Collage of mothers greeting their kids before sending them to school
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I Am A Better Mother When My Kid Is In School

There is nothing better than missing your kids.

by Ellen O'Connell Whittet

I entered into parenthood in the pandemic’s early days, which means that, until recently, I have been with my daughter almost incessantly. I have been able to (mostly) control her world, understand every single reference in her life, and watch as she becomes who she is. But this month, when my daughter finally started preschool five days a week, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was a really good mom for the first time in her life.

Like almost every parent I know, I tend to feel that my abilities as a mother are directly related to how much childcare I have. Now that it’s a daily occurrence, for the first time in over two years, everything feels more doable. I’m just a far more patient and present parent when I’m able to get some work done without having to check whether my toddler’s Teddy bear has Covid every few minutes.

Now, before my daughter leaves our house every weekday, I sit in the living room and color with her, feeling patient and serene. My phone is in the other room — I don’t feel the same need for the false comfort of my social media apps and text conversations, many of which are just a stream of complaints about the relentlessness of parenthood. I make a game of chasing her around the kitchen while I apply sunscreen to her entire body and she screams at me. She wants one more story this morning? That one we have already read 17 times this week? Who am I to say no!

Mothers simply get fewer opportunities to miss their kids, and the past two years have made that even harder.

And then, at 8:10 — and this is the important part — every single day, she gets in the car with my husband who drops her off at preschool on his way to work. Then, I have four blissful hours to work and keep the household running, during which I sporadically receive pictures of her dancing in music class, swinging with her friends, and taking care of baby dolls via the preschool app. I love these pictures because they show me she is as happy as I am when she is in another building, away from me for a long stretch of time. Sometimes, preciously, the photos even make me miss her.

As a university lecturer, I have more job flexibility (and make less money) than my spouse, so the weeks she’s not in school — during a break, for example, or when she’s home sick — I’m the parent who cares for her. Mom being the lucky one to stay home with the kids during breaks from school is a time-honored tradition. In fact, a 2014 study shows that among heterosexual parents, Mom is ten times more likely to stay home with a sick kid than Dad, and five times more likely to take a sick kid to the doctor. Mothers simply get fewer opportunities to miss their kids, and the past two years have made that even harder.

Those are the days I feel resentment building, and the loneliness of being home with a child starts to gnaw at my ambition. “Go away so I can miss you,” I want to say.

Last week was one such week. When she woke up from her nap on Saturday, after five-and-a- half days with me, I asked her what she’d like to do with Daddy. “Well, I’ve never seen an octopus,” she said. And so my husband took her to the aquarium in town, and sent me pictures of her happily reaching into touch tanks, eating ice cream, and having fun with someone who wasn’t me. He couldn’t send me enough pictures. I wanted to hear what the world away from me felt like to her. I hadn't missed her in too long. It felt great.

We long for them when we’re not with them, and long for some time alone when we are.

Now, with the first space I’ve had since my daughter’s birth, I see back-to-school season as more than just buying a backpack and markers. I see it as a time of regeneration for myself, a confirmation of my need for time alone. In practice this translates to a strange feeling, a hole I am trying to grow around, a wound I am trying to heal. We have spent so much time at home, just the two of us, trying to avoid Covid, that I’m not always sure what to do now when I’m home alone.

It’s too soon to say we are out of crisis mode as a culture — we have almost certainly not seen the last of Covid — but we might have time, this fall, to catch our breaths. We can hope this academic year is different. We can hope schools stay open and kids and teachers stay healthy for the first time in three years. We hope the endless school shootings stop. We hope our kids are making friends and eating all their lunch and that their teachers also secretly suspect they are geniuses who could also model. We hope we have an adequate chance to miss them this year. We haven’t missed our kids in so long, and missing them feels important for a parent’s sense of self.

For me, I hope this means reprioritizing my work, which I have not been able to do since before my daughter was born. I also imagine that on afternoons and weekends, when I’m with my daughter, I will enjoy her more, knowing the make-believe food prep has an expiration date. And when her preschool falls behind on sending me constant pictures and videos of her adorable day at school, I look forward to wondering what she’s doing.

Sure, sending your kids to school to miss them is akin to sending them to bed so you can scroll through pictures of them on your phone. We long for them when we’re not with them, and long for some time alone when we are. I know this new phase of life will bring its own joys and heartbreaks for each of us, and that my daughter will have experiences that are completely separate from me. I just hope that as she gets older, if I’m lucky, she will come home and tell me all about them.

There is nothing better than missing her. Let’s hope this year I finally get the chance.