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Pre-School: Demons and Ghosts

It's the three year old's first day to be left at Pre-School. She's never been to Nursery, or the child-minder: we've hardly ever been apart. As we cross the big playground together the sounds of school transport me back to my own childhood. Teachers' voices and the occasional scrape of chairs carry through the humidity of the July morning, my daughter grips tightly to my hand, and I can sense her taking in the loaded atmosphere of this strange new world.

We play together for a while, and I chat to the teachers. They all seem lovely and the atmosphere is warm, caring, and a bit chaotic. I tell my daughter I'm leaving and she confidently informs me that she is fine. But then there's a muddle as I'm told I have to put her shoes back on, and in the resulting faff she seems to lose a bit of confidence. She tells me she doesn't know what or who to play with.  A teacher moves in and distracts, and I slip away quick.

Back home, I make a coffee and sit on a rug with the one year old while she plays with cups. I feel quite awful in a way that I hadn't anticipated. For some reason I start thinking about lost loves. In particular I find myself remembering another hot day more than a decade ago when I took a man under whose spell I had completely fallen to Gatwick airport and put him on a flight home to JFK. I made the long drive across London back to my empty flat and sat on my living room floor, feeling too hollowed out even to cry. I wonder why I'm suddenly being visited by this ghost, and then I realise, although the story and the people are so very different, the physical feeling is the same: a sort of pulsating ache from the throat down to the belly, spreading outwards towards empty hands that cannot hold the person they most crave.

I decide to go back. On the way I remind myself not to be offended if she doesn't bat an eyelid on my return.  I'm prepared to find her not missing me in the slightest and immersed in a fun game. She isn't. As I come round the corner I catch sight of her, sat by herself under a tree in the playground. She looks worried, lonely, lost. I get another ghostly visitation as I remember so clearly that feeling of being left out of the game, and see myself as a child, sitting and watching the others play, from under a different tree. As she sees me and her sister her face lights up and she rushes towards us and we throw our arms around each other. I really feel like I'm going to cry, but I swallow it for fear of looking a total idiot.

We play for a bit longer before the session ends. I feel I'm all over the place emotionally and it's manifesting itself by an inner nitpicking and fault finding session with everything I see. Some of the girls have been playing with the dressing up box and I notice it contains a selection of high heeled shoes in little girl sizes. I know I would never have something like this at home and I don't like the idea of my daughter wearing them. A little boy does show-and-tell and has come dressed as a Devil.  I know my daughter doesn't know what a Devil is and I don't want her to know, either. Surely all these things can wait, I fume to myself.

I know what I'm doing here. By working up this angry energy I'm managing to stave off the real emotions: sadness, loss, grief. The three year old, just like her one year old sister who started walking this week, is moving away from me, and it's hard. From being nestled tight inside my body, they are both becoming more and more individual with each passing day, and it sometimes feels like a wrench even stronger than the pains of labour. And, just as when I gave birth, I know I have to let myself release them.

But I also wonder, is it really necessary, this separation, so young, so soon? The teachers tell me that sometimes the children cry at drop off time and that the staff are well practiced in the art of distraction.  But what is really going on in the heart of the 'distracted' child? Have they really forgotten their parent and their need to be near them? And what are we hoping to gain from this enforced apartness, that doesn't always seem to sit well with either parent or child? There's a cultural drive towards independence at work here, and from the cot in the nursery, to the plastic teat, to the pram at arms length, to early weaning, to sleeping through the night, we are bombarded by messages and imagery that tell us that our children should be encouraged to need us less.

I'm aware that my daughter, and her sister after her, might grab Pre-School with both hands and thoroughly love it. I'm aware that I have to allow them to do this. I'm aware that school life will bring great moments of pleasure and pride in their progress and growth. And I'm aware - before you say it - that I need to lighten the fuck up. And yet...and yet. Amidst the demons of the present and the ghosts of the past, something about it still feels at odds with my intuition.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I've been thinking about pre-school as my DD approaches the age to start going and, of course, I'm getting the questions of 'when is she going to pre-school?' from various people. My intuition tells me to follow her lead, as in, give it a try and if she is not comfortable with it, then that is fine, we will try again later. It sounds as if your daughter may not be completely comfortable with it yet, therefore neither are you.
    I have mixed feelings about the benefit of pre-schools, nurseries etc. I completely agree with you about the strange need from our society to make children as independent, as quickly as possible. But at the same time I look at my own childhood and remember how my mother took me to a playgroup once and never took me again because 'there were children with snot candles hanging from their noses and I didn't want you catching anything'. So by the time I was school age, I knew no one already and hadn't had much interaction with other children. So I found school and socialising very difficult, was bullied throughout and today still struggle sometimes in a public setting. I often wonder if this is because I never has that early interaction with other children and I resent my mother's choices because of this. So....I'm torn. BUT this post has definitely given me food for thought :)

  2. And just sometimes (often actually) our intuition is very right.

    We withdrew our middle son from pre-school because it was clear he was unhappy. Our third, never went at all. I have no idea of your circumstances or why you are sending your daughter to pe-school, but where we lived there was this sense that 'they ought to go' that it was 'good for their development'... bollocks I reckon. And surely how you feel about it is importnat too - you're arguably the most important part of the partnership.

  3. What an honest post. I am sure there are more Mothers than care to admit that have felt this but have not spoken up (or returned before pick up time)... and many others who may not ever think about what actually goes on in a school environment and if it sits right with their own morales and values.

    As you know I personally feel that it is bizarre to spend the first 3 or 5 years of your childs life taking time and care over decisions and then suddenly just forgetting that process and joining the line for whichever pre-school/nursery school/school makes most sense and off they go....

    I understand about letting go and that my child is not my possession but I also understand what a state our coutry is in... How we keep churning out young adults with depression, anxiety and no sense of place in the world...

    Maybe to make a difference we actually need to start doing things differently...

    Schooling can be lovely, interesting, informative and fun. It can also by scary, intimidating, pressuring, conforming and loanly - I dont think that one way of education is necessarily better than the other - just that there is more than one way to educate and we, as parents that really care, should look at all options available to us before making a decision - and re-evaluate every term so we know we are doign the best we can by our children.

    Ooohh... That was a blog in itself!

  4. thanks all for these very thoughtful comments.
    michelle i think you are right that if we keep our children entirely out of the 'system' we run the risk of making things difficult for them at some point further down the line.
    mark i love your attitude and i will certainly be inspired by it if we decide not to bother with preschool - as we will if she really doesn't like it.
    and jen you are right, we must try to continue to be thoughtful and follow our intuition, and constantly re-evaluate.
    thank you again all for such fascinating thoughts! xxx

  5. When I first started taking my son to pre-school for short sessions (at 2 and a bit) it upset me very much to see other children crying at drop-off time, and I frequently said to the staff that if my son ever wanted me, to ring and I would come and pick him up. Luckily he settled in very well and loves it there - the pre-school he goes to is small and the staff are very loving. I have always felt that care of the child is their main concern - not winning the OFSTED ratings war.

    I wanted him to go because I felt smothered by the incessant needs of my child and desperately craved some time of my own, I felt, and still feel, selfish and guilty, but I also knew that he would do activities there that I wouldn't or couldn't do at home, and thus it would be an enriching experience for him.

    I also felt that it was important for him to learn to socialise with children in bigger groups than he would see elsewhere, to interact with slightly older children and perhaps learn from them new skills and how to deal with unfamiliar situations.

    These are things that our forbears learnt by playing with other children out in the streets or in the countryside, something sadly lacking in our society now.

    As with anything else, you have to go with your instincts and do whatever you feel is right for your child. What works for one child, is not necessarily good for another, even within the same family. And likewise, a child may also instinctively feel more at home in one pre-school than another...

  6. Dear mule :),

    I mostly empathise intensely with your writings, but this time, while understanding the feeling of belonging, of tenderness and the urge to protect that animate your doubts about preschool, I dare to express a bit of dissent. One of the loveliest definitions of being a parent that I've come across was that you are the person who should endow a child with roots and wings. And while the intense feeling of belonging and abandonment to each other's care is definitely roots, I think that it ought to be a basis for exploration - and that the exploration should happen outside of a mommy-governed world as well - otherwise it's not wings, but more kite-flying :). I feel that a lot of our generation of mums try to thoroughly control the environment of the children, what they are exposed to, what they interact with, in order to ensure safety (in a world that feels more hasardous by the minute), to nurture healthy attachment and oh so many other things. But the world is much more eclectic than our choices and they will need to cope with it, not with our version of the facts. AND build their own strategies for it. Since preschool (which here begins at 2,5), my oldest has become so much more independent, has learned to relate to more sets of rules, has acquired and invented so many new games that I wouldn't have provided and even her eating habits, our continuous fight, have improved. She's happy there and then she's happy when we see each other again and we make the most of that time. The cuddling and the feeling of safety when I hold her are unchanged or maybe intenser, and yet, I am glad that she can function apart, make friends and tell stories about them, trust her teacher (ok, we are blessed, they were never more than 15 in the whole group) and play on her own. I dare to question instinct, sometimes - because, apart from helping one empathise with their child and understand what the child needs in terms of immediate safety, it can also keep us prisoner to our own (selfish -ugh, that sounds so judgmental and I don't mean it that way! - it's part of constantly second guessing my own motifs for choosing to do things) needs. Oops, this has become a really long answer...

  7. wise words, lysterical, thank you!

  8. and jiminy, thank you for your dissent! (i do love a bit of dissent i really do!)
    there are more wise words here, and beautifully put. i totally agree with you. and i hope i was clear in my post that i will follow my daughters lead, and that i understand i have to let her fly.
    however, i do think that it is always better to jump than to be pushed, and if i feel that she is not ready, i will not 'make her' go. i know that one day she WILL be ready, just like now she sleeps through the night in her own bed, in spite of having needed me during the night to what sometimes seemed like extreme levels for a very long time!

  9. I'm reading your article while trying not to cry into my lunch and being asked by a coworker if I'm ok. Had to take DD to Montessori school for 3 months when she was 2. When I went to pick her up the first day she was sadly looking through the playground fence holding on to her lovey. When she saw me her little face lit up and immediately crumbled when I disappeared into the building to get to her. When I finally got to the playground we ran into each others' arms and I don't know who was sobbing more.

    1. Thanks TJ! Sorry to make you cry! I actually can't read this post myself at the moment as she starts school for real in September and I'm not coping very well with that reality! :(


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