The two oldest Gong Girls started 1st and 2nd grades today. We did it! Or, as Dora would say: Lo hicimos! We survived another summer vacation!
Of course, it’s not all that clean and simple. I have complicated thoughts about school starting. For instance, all day I have had to respond to the repeated query of my lonesome two-year-old: “Where sisters?”
As I was mingling with other liberated parents over coffee and muffins in the school gym this morning, I remembered this post from a few years back. All of the parents were swapping stories about that first drop-off: Some children had been fine after suffering from weeks of anxiety, some had had terrible mornings, some had raced into their classrooms without looking back.
This was my fifth first day of school, and our morning went quite well as it turned out. But I’ve learned never to trust the first day: It’s always, always the second day — and the month that follows — that requires true parenting elbow grease.
For the record, most of this essay still rings true: The chickens are no longer with us (for now), and Campbell has graduated to saying “poop” instead of “poo,” but the rest stands.
Fiona and Campbell started preschool at the end of August. For Fiona, this was a return to the same preschool, same classroom, and same teacher as last year. Her fellow students, however, were almost entirely new to her. (Because of Fiona’s November birthday, she was placed in the four-year-old class last year; because the cut-off date for kindergarten is September 1, Fiona and a few other classmates will spend another year in the four-year-old class, while most of their peers from last year move on to kindergarten). For Campbell, starting out in the three-year-old class next door to Fiona, the whole experience was new.
Both of them were hugely excited for the first day of school — but not as excited as I was!
There’s a lot of build-up before the first day of school each year: anticipation, nervousness, new clothes and shoes and supplies. Even I felt a little nervous, although my main priority was just getting the kids out of the house. I hoped and prayed that Fiona would make friends and be happy with her new peer group. I hoped and prayed that Campbell would respect her teachers and be kind to the other students and avoid inappropriately using the word “poo-poo” — at least for the first day.
But, having done the first-day-of-school thing last year, I also knew this: It’s not the first day of school that’s the issue; it’s the SECOND day.
See, the first day, everything is fresh and exciting. There may be jitters, there may be wrenching goodbyes — but in my experience, adrenaline mostly carries everyone through. I’ve been the mom patting myself on the back after the first day of school, proudly relieved that my child had NO PROBLEM saying goodbye.
And then the second day hit.
By the second day, the kids have wised up. It’s not fresh and exciting anymore; instead, they can see past the new clothes and school supplies to the rules, expectations, and social minefield that they’re going to have to navigate EVERY SINGLE DAY. You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!? their eyes seem to say.
I was thinking about this as school began, and I realized that much of what makes life hard has to do with The Second Day. It’s not always literally the second 24-hour day, but it’s the state of mind we face when the newness has worn off. Think about it: You get married, and at first you’re swept along through the wedding and honeymoon, but pretty soon comes that Second Day, when you stare at your partner across the table and think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?
Or, say, you have a baby, and you’re all jazzed up because you survived labor and now you have this cute little munchkin and you’re getting all sorts of attention and your house is stuffed with nifty new baby supplies…but then you come home from the hospital and have to face the Second Day, when nobody cares anymore that you have a new baby (except your parents — they’ll always care), and all your clothes are covered with bodily fluids and that munchkin is STILL waking up every two hours and you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?
OR maybe you do something really great in your profession/vocation/calling/art: you win an award, or obtain a degree, or invent something new, or create a painting/performance/book/film/play/blog post that people really like. Congratulations! You feel like your existence is finally validated…for about 24 hours. Because then comes that Second Day, when you have to sit at your desk or computer or easel again, and you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?
OR EVEN, let’s say you move to a small town in Vermont, and everything is new and wonderful. You love your new house, your new friends, the new landscape — your entire new lifestyle. But then the second year rolls around, and suddenly nothing’s quite so new anymore. You’ve seen all these seasons before, done just about everything there is to do at least once. And one dark and freezing winter morning, when you’re heading outside to feed those damn chickens AGAIN, you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?
Hey, it could definitely happen.
That Second Day is no joke. Based on the examples above, I’d venture that it’s the root cause of many cases of divorce, postpartum depression, and personal and professional burnout. I myself have experienced it plenty. In fact, I abandoned my first profession — teaching — because after four years I just couldn’t face a lifetime of Second Days in the classroom.
I have no tips for avoiding the Second Day phenomenon. It’s an inescapable part of life. Nothing stays new forever; if every day were a FIRST day, life would eventually become hyperactive and exhausting. All I have is this insight: the Second Day is difficult and depressing, but if you persevere through it, that’s when things start to take root and get really interesting. Marriage and parenting will always be HARD WORK — filled with multiple Second Days — but when I think back to my husband on our wedding day, or my kids when they were first born, I realize that I love them now with much more richness and complexity. I wouldn’t go back to that first day for anything.
I suppose the best way to handle Second Days is to anticipate them. I know now that I need to be just as prepared — if not more — to help my kids navigate that second day of school. I need to linger with a few extra hugs and kisses at the door, maybe even slip a little love note or special chocolate treat into their lunch bags. I need to offer encouragement that the most worthwhile thing in life — deep and genuine LOVE: for others, for what you do, for where you live — requires pushing past that Second Day. Perhaps we should all treat ourselves accordingly when we face life’s Second Days. Especially the extra chocolate treat.
So, now I’ve thought this through, and I feel more equipped to tackle those Second Days. But you know what?
I still have to get up tomorrow morning and feed those damn chickens.