This morning I drove my 3 year old beautiful, funny, loving daughter to her first day at preschool. Her classroom has a mixture of other children with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and children who do not have IEPs. There are two teachers and the lead teacher has a Master's in special education. It is a wonderful school. On our tour, Sophie loved it and was angry with us when we had to go. I had no doubts that my little social butterfly would do well there.
I knew this morning would be hard on me, letting her go. Parents all over the world are going through their own child's first day of preschool, kindergarten, college. Letting go is harder on us then on the kids. We leave a piece of our hearts in their backpacks as they board the bus or as we turn to say goodbye and try to make it out of the classroom before we can no longer hold back the dam. Parents of children with special needs aren't any different in this way from other parents. Except, I think, we are.
For me today wasn't just about my baby girl taking a big step towards growing up. Yes, all parents have to trust that the schools will do right by their children and keep them safe from harm's way. However, when you have a child who has a developmental disability and is nonverbal or like Sophie with a very, very limited vocabulary, this ups the ante. We don't just worry about whether or not they will be afraid once they realize we aren't there, or if they will make friends, or participate in the activities. We wonder how on God's green Earth we will ever know. Will I know if a child is picking on her or the extreme case if she has a teacher or aid that is dangerous when she can't tell me? Monsters like this are out there and they target our kids, a fact that keeps me up at night if I allow my mind to go there. The trust ante is up when we send our kids to school and so is my anxiety level.
This morning when we were walking in her classroom another little student said, "Hey you can't come in here. You're not our friend!" I introduced him to Sophie and the teacher explained that it was time to make new friends and that Sophie was their new friend. That settled the matter. I had to laugh at myself (in my head of course) for allowing a 3 year old to briefly rattle my fragile cage. Sophie jumped right in and began exploring and playing. She didn't seem to need me in the slightest. I didn't want to be the mom who hovers when her child is just fine, so I snapped a few pictures and let her take this giant step towards independence.
Three hours later I returned to pick up my big preschooler. Her class was outside on the playground and I snapped a couple of pictures before really looking at her. What I discovered was that she wasn't the curious, happy little girl I had left 3 hours ago. Her skin was the shade of bright pink that she gets when she has over heated (pictures do not do it justice). My child cannot tolerate extremes in temperature or direct sunlight for very long. She was just sitting there, like a lump. Her lethargy and skin coloring was not good. It hadn't even occurred to me to warn them that even 10 minutes in weather like this can be too much. (enter panic, guilt, anger, worry) I think I was especially taken off guard because when I left she was doing great. In the past Alexander has had off days at preschool, but they were always at the beginning, not the end of the day, so I expected to find a happy girl.
I spoke with her teacher to ask how long they had been outside, which she assured me was not very long. I explained that she needs to be watched carefully in such bright light and heat and she too became concerned. She got Sophie a glass of water (which she didn't drink) and said something about making sure to have water outside in the future. I was barely listening. She told me that Sophie loved music time and playing instruments. Of course she did. She's a big music fan. They played with playdough and "she lasted longer than she expected." I didn't ask how long that meant because I was ready to run for the hills, my baby in my arms. "She didn't care too much for story time," which I said surprised me as she loves books. The teacher thought maybe it was because it was a group activity. hmmm? No time to talk. Gotta run away now.
I carried my limp ragdoll to the car and then she lost it and she didn't stop screaming and crying for an hour and a half. Crying in a way that I have not seen, maybe ever, certainly not without a painful injury. I was barely able to get her to drink juice and lunch just wasn't happening. Through her sobs I heard her cry "Daddy" over and over. She wouldn't let me put her down for more than 90 minutes.
My daughter's few words aren't enough to explain to her momma why she's so upset. Was she just overheated and cranky? Was she afraid when she realized that I wasn't there? Was she upset because she didn't understand what today was about, that she's in preschool? Was she worried that I wouldn't be back to get her? Was it all just too much to take in? What happened?
She can't tell me. My child was so distraught that only Skyping Daddy at work and then watching her favorite show Yo Gabba Gabba finally dried her tears and got her off my lap. I felt panicked at my inability to calm her, to understand what was in her mind and heart. I'm angry and I'm fantasizing about either withdrawing her from school forever or sitting in every class until she's 22 years old. Neither is the right option.
My new but already very cherished friend Mara's Spidey senses were tingling and I got a text from her asking how it went. When she didn't like my reply she called me right away and talked me down off my emotional ledge as only true friends can. She let me cry and whine. She told me about her daughter (without special needs) who had thrown fits of gargantuan proportions for 3 months when she started school. She reminded me that her son (who has Down syndrome) will be starting preschool soon and I might need to return the favor if she loses it. She helped me remember that Alexander had his awful preschool days too.
The thing is, I get that all children, typically developing or not, have their own ways of processing change and adjusting to things like school. For me the heart of my pain lies in our communication barrier. It is true that other 3 year olds may have a hard time expressing their feelings or even understanding them, but it is different when you have a child with special needs. It just is. I don't say this to garner pity. Parents of children with special needs do not need that. We need phone calls, understanding, humor.
Sophie finally calmed down enough to eat at 2 and fell asleep at 2:30. We have a day off as she doesn't go back until Wednesday and I'm already coming up with a plan for how to be better prepared, for the both of us.