January 20, 2012
By Ekta R. Garg
Last weekend we had an interesting situation on our hands. For the first time, Five had gotten an invitation to a birthday party that didn’t extend the invitation to Three.
Well, to be perfectly accurate, the situation played out the weekend before that. Three had gotten a birthday invitation that didn’t extend to Five. So two Saturdays ago Five watched her younger sister enviably as we both “dolled up” and went to the party. Five stayed at home with her grandpa and dad and watched a favorite movie as she had her afternoon snack.
When we got to that party, Three didn’t take very long to mingle with her classmates from preschool and enjoyed herself immensely. She’s still talking about the party. I guess it helps that the goody bag she received is still more or less intact and is still being used in the daily games both girls invent on the spot.
This past Saturday, when Five had to attend her classmate’s birthday party, Three seemed a little sad that Five would be going alone. More than attending the party without her, though, Three seemed concerned about another first for us: this would be the first time I would be dropping Five at a party and leaving her there without supervising her.
As I tucked Three into bed for her mid-afternoon nap, I told her I would drop Five at the party and come home.
“No, you have to bring Di-Di [“older sister” in Hindi] home,” she said, a bit of anxiety in her eyes.
I smiled, understanding her assumption. So I explained to her how I would drop Five at the party, come home and serve lunch to the “grownups” and then go back out for a grocery run before picking up her sister. All before Three woke up from her nap.
She seemed placated by that and let me go with a hug and a kiss. And I turned to experience a first: dropping Five at a party and walking away.
Her classmate’s home was only 10 minutes away from ours, and as we drove we made small talk. She wondered momentarily what her friend’s house was like and remarked more than once on how long it took us to get there (if I’d known it would be such an issue I would have called the city ahead of time to program them otherwise, but I ended up hitting a couple of red lights along the way.) But finally the moment came when we’d parked the car and approached the front door.
As we made our way up the walk, one of the other girls invited to the party spotted Five through the window and declared that Five had arrived. I heard my daughter’s name repeated several times with exclamations of excitement and anticipation. I knocked perfunctorily on the door—it really wasn’t necessary since all the girls at the party had now arrived and announced Five’s arrival—and Five glowed with all the attention. She barely paid me any mind, and I had to remind her more than once to take off her coat and shoes before joining the other girls who’d just been served pizza by the birthday mom.
I exchanged a few pleasant words with the birthday mom and stepmom (who seemed to be braving the roles as “adults in charge”,) walked out the door, and drove away. And as I drove, I suddenly remembered a similar scene three years earlier. The difference? Three years ago I walked away, sat in the car, and cried all the way to my next destination.
Three years ago, Five began a toddler program while we were living in Houston. Her baby sister had joined the family more than a month earlier, and I felt at a loss to deal with both children—young ones at that—at home. So we made a decision: Five would begin a toddler program three days a week to mix up the day for her.
The first few days she attended, I dropped her off, walked out the door, and cried. She, surprisingly, did NOT cry. When I picked her up after lunch, she seemed happy and intrigued by this new place. And I wondered whether I should be happy that she liked her new “school” or sad that she didn’t miss me.
And then Hurricane Ike hit, and we literally fled the state to stay with my parents on the east coast as post-hurricane chaos ensued.
When we came back, I did what I could to help the family get back on a routine as fast as I could. That included dropping Five at school as we had done before leaving town. And as I walked out the door, Five began to cry.
I smiled, waved, and made it all the way to the car before letting my own tears leak out of my eyes, and I continued to cry all the way to my next stop of the day. How could I have done such a terrible thing, leaving my child all alone in an unfamiliar place with adults she didn’t know and other children who might bonk her on the head with the toys in the room? Would I actually be able to trust the adults in the school with my daughter? She is my firstborn, my first baby. At two, she was still a baby—well, almost. And I had just left her alone and walked away without being able to convey to her in a meaningful way that I would come back a scant few hours later and that this routine would be replayed dozens of times to come until she went to college.
Needless to say, we survived those first few days. In fact it wasn’t long before we flipped around to face the other direction—getting Five (then Two) to leave school provided me with an opportunity to exercise every manipulative power within reach.
And now, three years later, I can drop her off at a birthday party and watch her smile as her friends surround her and I fade into the background. Admittedly I felt a little odd as I walked out the door and got into the car. What happened to the little girl who would hide behind my leg and peek out shyly at new people? What happened to the baby who looked for me first whenever we found ourselves in a room full of acquaintances?
I’m happy Five has begun to “socialize” without me hovering over her, but my breath catches when I realize how much she’s grown up. Why wasn’t this part of parenting in the manual?
I suppose the trick would be in finding the manual first. Most of parenting, as many of you know, happens on the spur of the moment. We parents plan and discuss and invest and look to the future, but so much of what we do happens as the situation develops. And even in knowing this day would come, I don’t think I could ever fully prepare for it until it happened to me.
Therein, I suppose, is the paradox—and the reality—of parenting.