Did I Enjoy My Kids Enough Before They Went Back To School?

A couple weeks ago, I sent my 4-year-old daughter to school for the first time. To be honest, I was excited for the new school year to start. I knew she was ready for preschool, knew she would thrive, and let’s face it—I was pretty thrilled about having her at school instead of at home fighting with her brothers.

In fact, I had talked this moment up in my mind for months. My daughter had been bored at home with me. She had been dying for more social interaction. She was going through an intellectual growth spurt that I felt unprepared to fully nurture. This next step was going to be amazing, for her and for myself.

Then the new school year actually arrived, and it wasn’t the happiness-boosting step forward I had hoped for. I swelled with pride as I sent her off for her first day, but then I returned home with only my youngest. It was so quiet. 

So peaceful.

So empty.

This is how it’s going to be from now on, I thought. At least until I send my youngest off to school, when it will be even quieter, even emptier. I can hardly bear to think about this most days. It’s not that I don’t know how to fill the days. I certainly enjoy my work as a writer, and quite frankly, I look forward to the uninterrupted hours that will someday be mine.

But I’m not paralyzed by the thought of what to do—instead, I’m plagued by the thoughts of everything I didn’t do.

I looked back over the past couple months and realized I hadn’t created the magical last summer with my daughter I had hoped for. We didn’t cross every item off our bucket list. We didn’t spend every week at the lake. We only went camping once. We missed the fair during a bout of summer illness. Our summer was peppered with great moments here and there, but not as many as I had wanted. I felt as if I’d fallen short.

It didn’t take long for me to start mourning not only the passing of summer, but of the years when I had my daughter all to myself. For four years, I had her with me nearly every moment of every day, but how many of those moments shone in my mind? How many of them were memorable? How often did I look at my phone instead of her face? How many days were wasted on chores when she was seeking my attention?

How often did I lose my patience, forgetting that she needed me to be steadfast and reliable? How many times had I responded sharply or carelessly instead of making her feel heard and loved? Had I been a good mom more often than not?

Which version of me would she remember most?

I was filled with regret as I scanned through the years, knowing I could have and should have done better. How many opportunities had I wasted? Too many to count. Now those opportunities for good memories would be fewer and further between. Between school and extracurricular activities, there’s not a whole lot of time left.

School takes them away from us, little by little. They spend more hours without us than with us. They take on new friends and new identities that we’re not a part of. They become their own people, and we are hardly there to witness it.

I didn’t realize until it was too late how precious those first few years were. Yes, they were intense and overwhelming. It was hard to maintain the level of patience I needed to love them right when I was around them nonstop. But now that those years are over, I find myself pining for the chance to have all my babies together again. To be around them in that constant, unrelenting way once more. Because no matter how difficult it was, there was comfort in knowing that they were still all mine. That I was there for every minute of their day. That I saw every moment—the good, the bad, the mundane.

There are so many moments I wish I could go back and do over. I wish I had done more with them, laughed more with them, loved them better at each turn. I wish I had been the mother I am now when I first started out. I wish, like every mother, that there were a way to turn back time, but there isn’t.

At the end of the day, I have to trust that I enjoyed their early years as best as I could—and commit to enjoying where we are now—and in the future.

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Glamour, Women’s Health, Babble, Yahoo Parenting and more. She lives in Reno, NV with her husband, three young children, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

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