Letting My Baby Go
September 2nd was the day I let my baby go. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but something deep inside me changed that day that continues to profoundly affect my life and the way I raise my children.
Five and a half years ago my son was born premature and spent his first seventeen days in the NICU surrounded by tubes, wires, monitors, and beeps of all kinds that continually assured me that everything was okay. I thought I watched him die one day when his oxygen levels slowly dropped to nothing on the monitor as he lay in his hospital bed. I just stood there and rubbed his back, said his name and cried. I didn’t say help. I didn’t get a nurse. I was frozen, watching him and the monitor. The alarms went off and a nurse came over, leaned close to him and said, “Oh, did you knock your lead loose again?” Then she looked up at me and realized that it was Mom who needed her attention rather than the baby. How could I ever bring him home? I didn’t know how to be a mother. I was much more comfortable with the nurses taking care of him.
I believe it was this experience that began my quest to protect him, to keep him from suffering or experiencing pain of any kind. It formed my tendency to step in and make sure the other kids were nice to him. It pushed me to scream, “Be careful—that’s not safe!” I was never going to let him down again like I had done that day in the hospital. When I finally did bring him home, it took months before I believed that he would remember to breathe on his own, and even longer to trust anyone else with his care. What if he doesn’t eat enough? What if he falls down? What if he gets sick again? My life was constantly on edge, filled with anxiety and fear.
Preparation for kindergarten started early. I sent him to camp in the kindergarten classrooms so he would be familiar with the rooms. I bought all the books I could find about going to school and we read them over and over during the summer. I agonized about clothing, lunchboxes, and backpacks that would “set him up for success.”
As the first day of school came closer, the knot in my stomach grew tighter. I packed and repacked the rolling backpack we bought. I thought it would be easier for him to walk down the hallways to his classroom if he didn’t have to carry it. I made him practice rolling it repeatedly. I reread the papers the school had sent home. I stressed about what an “easy to put on and take off” art-smock should be. I bought four folders for him since I wasn’t sure what they meant by “plastic folder.” I agonized about what to send in his lunchbox, all the while playing the part of a calm, collected, and excited parent so he wouldn’t feed off my fear.
The bus was never part of the plan. There were too many stories about what really goes on and my little boy was just not ready to handle it. In the end I was reluctantly convinced by other moms, who did their best to set my mind at ease, to let him ride. They explained how the kids who ride the bus go into school in a pack, rather than by themselves. They assured me there would be plenty of teachers and volunteers to greet and help the kids get to their classrooms, but somehow I didn’t feel any better about it. Taking the bus meant having to be at the bus stop at 7:30 in the morning. He would be on the bus for forty minutes for what is normally a five-minute car ride. Could this really be the best thing for him?
By the morning of September 2nd I was exhausted and terrified. He was excited, but visibly nervous and asked me again if I would take him to school. I explained we were going to take the bus for a week and then we’d talk. He asked, “But what if I get on the wrong bus?” My heart sank as I smiled and said, “There are so many people whose job it is to make sure that you get on the right bus. You don’t need to worry, that’s what your nametag is for, remember?” I patted his back and restrained myself from getting my car keys.
We went out to the bus stop and waited. When the bus came, he shot me a look of panic and asked me to walk him to the door. I squeezed his hand and gave him a pep talk as he pulled his backpack behind him with skill. He started up the steps and tried to pull his now obviously and shockingly enormous backpack up behind him. A wave of dread and regret swept over me. I watched as he struggled to wrestle this monstrosity up into a seat and hoped he would look up and see me waving. He didn’t. The bus started pulling away and he began to cry.
What had I done? Why did I think a rolling backpack was best? Why did I not notice that this backpack was as big as he was? Why had I never thought about STAIRS? If he had such a hard time getting on the bus, surely getting off the bus would be a disaster, completely setting him up for failure in kindergarten.
Back in the house, I put on a movie for my daughter so she wouldn’t see me blubbering. I watched the clock and prayed through my tears, “God—I don’t trust them! Any of them! But … I do trust You. Even though this might be the worst day of his life so far, I know You will use this to better his character and grow him as a person.” All things I knew were true, but hardly believed in this particular moment.
Eventually, I decided he had probably arrived in his classroom and the worst was over. I took a deep breath and realized there was nothing for me to do until I met him at the bus after school. I might as well believe the words I had prayed and actually trust God. Then the call came. I looked at the caller-ID and my heart sank. It was the school.
A friendly voice on the phone said, “Mrs. Cotter?” “Yes?” I managed to say, bracing myself for the terrible news I was about to receive. “There’s no emergency, I was just calling because a reporter from the newspaper happened to catch your son getting off the bus and I wondered if we had your permission to use the picture.” “Yes! Absolutely!” I said as I started to laugh. Not only had someone documented my son arriving at school safe and sound, but I had to assume that unless the reporter was writing an article about the absurd backpacks mothers were sending with their children to school these days, he had gotten off the bus without falling on his face. What a funny way to answer my prayer.
After school, he did in fact fall off the bus and onto to the road, but luckily didn’t get hurt. I held him tight as he said, “Mommy, my backpack is kind of … large.” I told him I was sorry and listened to him recount the difficulties his backpack had caused as he wiped tears from his eyes. He told me about how he’d gotten lost at school and cried until the gym teacher found him and helped him get to his class. I hugged him again and went to order a smaller backpack online.
They never published the picture in the paper, but I didn’t care. I learned that day that even though he was going to cry and feel lost and maybe even get hurt, he would be okay. That’s the day I let my premature NICU baby go. I began the process of loosening my grip around him so he could begin to grow. I realized that my job as a parent is not to shelter my child from discomfort, pain, suffering, or fears, but rather to help him overcome obstacles. This would not be the last “first day” in his life.
Soon, back at the bus stop, he told me I didn’t need to walk him to the door of the bus anymore. I watched as he maneuvered up the stairs with a slightly smaller, but still quite large backpack. He returned home one day and proudly informed me that he had found his classroom all by himself. I gave him a high-five and felt myself grin as I realized I was finally starting to do my job.