Mikko, now 4, had been attending a language-immersion preschool twice a week for a half-day each for the past two and a half years. He started just before he turned 2, and I was ambivalent even then. We sent him for a few reasons: multilingual exposure (German and Spanish) to complement what he's receiving in his bilingual upbringing at home (German and English), activities that we didn't have to plan (crafts, games, songs), social opportunities with other kids (since we didn't have many friends who were parents at the time), exercise and playtime indoors and out, and time for Sam and me to work and have a little break from being on call.
These were all valid reasons, and I really wish it had worked out.
Mikko has always been high-needs. As an infant, he had to be carried and bounced (standing up!) constantly. As a baby, he would scream at any disregulation in his comfort: peeing, pooping, being cold, being hungry — not insistently let us know but scream. As a toddler, it was always challenging to wind him down for sleep, and the rare occasions of leaving him with sitters were cause for tears on all sides.
Now, as a verbal and entirely charming preschooler, I love him to pieces but I still see how different he sometimes is from average kids (whoever they are). He won't go into the nursery at church without falling apart. He still sleeps snuggled against us at night, and if we try to put him down elsewhere (which we can do now), he'll wake up in the middle of the night and scoot his way back in between Sam and me. He abhors conflict, making it impossible to take him to children's movies that feature villains (which is — all of them). When we went to see The Wiggles in concert, he sat backwards in his seat, refused to look at the stage, and complained in my ear the whole time that it was too dark and too loud. He'll go days without pooping, and when he does it's a big dramatic production with weeping and running from the toilet. He's resistant to getting dirty or wet, even in the name of fun, and he'll only wear "comfy pants." He went through a long phase of wearing a fedora everywhere and pulling it down over his face when he felt threatened, such as at social gatherings.
In short, the kid is intense. He feels things deeply and is highly sensitive.
Which always meant preschool was a dicey proposition.
I don't think there's anything wrong with Mikko. I know I was sensitive as a child, too, and I turned out all right. Sam was, too. We still are. We all have to learn how to handle our reactions and emotions, and some of us take longer than others. Some of us need more support than others as well. I'm really not in a hurry to rush him through the process.
Apparently preschool was too much too soon for this particular child.
I was always envious of the other parents dropping off their kids with a quick kiss goodbye, the child sending a cheery wave over a shoulder. How come I was the only one with a kid who cried at every drop-off, for two years straight?
Oh, there were breaks. I don't want to exaggerate. There were periods of weeks where we'd get our hopes up and think, He's happy now! He's adjusted! And then he'd enter a new clingy phase, and we'd be back to square one.
Once he could talk well, it got worse. He'd spend all week telling us how he didn't want to go to preschool, and the litany would escalate in the car. "No Schule, no Schule, no Schule," he'd chant in increasingly higher decibels as we drove the familiar route. He'd burst into tears as we parked at the building. Or, worse, he'd do his stoic face, opening and closing his mouth to keep the tear muscles at bay, staring through the glass door in mute reproach as we walked away.
As he got older, he got creative. On one ride to Schule, he told Sam a story about how the building had burned down and been carried away by giant trucks, so they really, really couldn't go and they should just turn around. As we broached the topic of taking him out, he began bargaining with us, offering desired behaviors in exchange for unenrolling. For instance, he promised to be quiet as a mouse and let us work all day, just as long as he could stay home.
I don't think there's anything wrong with his preschool, or of course I'd have taken him out long ago. As I said, all the other kids think it's a kick. I mean, anytime a new, young toddler steps in, there's a week or two of crying and adjusting, but then all is well. I'm actually supposed to be reviewing The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley, and I've been putting it off because, even though I absolutely love the book, we hadn't had what I'd call "success" yet in terms of curbing this anxiety he's been having.
If I ask Mikko whether he likes the teachers and kids there, he'll stare at me blankly. If I suggest, via a leading question, that he's having problems with them, he'll seize on that as a reason to keep him out. Even a four-year-old can tell what a valid excuse would be to leave a situation. I don't think he's having many or any of those problems organically, though.
Sam thinks the biggest downward curve was when Mikko was given a time-out by a teacher who's no longer at the school. It really upset him, for months afterward. And, if Sam's theory is correct, he never got over the breach in trust.
There are a couple kids there who are more boisterous and less gentle in their play. Sam saw Mikko get beaned on the head by one once at pickup, and there's a certain boy who fascinates Mikko as much as repels. "That Casey," he'll say, "he never listens to me!" [Note: His name's not really Casey.]
But I detected no hint of anything shady or ongoing, no bullying or abuse. The teachers always seem genuinely fond of Mikko and have been quick to reassure us that he's just fine, that he stops crying once we leave.
Although: That's not the point. He's been crying and whining and sad all week long about preschool, so the fact that the teachers have to deal with it for only five minutes twice a week isn't much of a salve to us. When we tried to have straightforward conversations with them about his separation anxiety, we just kept hearing the same party line — that he's doing better, that he'll get over it soon. I guess saying the opposite wouldn't be much of a business model, would it?
So we floated the idea to Mikko of stopping. We told him he'd have to go to the office some days with his father and play quietly. We told ourselves that we'd have to step up our unschooling plan. In some ways, it was exciting, this idea of starting our unschooling now, rather than waiting a year for kindergarten age.
Mikko, of course, was all for it. Sam and I had determined that we'd start slowly, experimenting with unschooling and office time in between his regular preschool days — that maybe we'd take him out at the end of the year. But, naturally, having told Mikko of our plans was our undoing. He heard "stop going to Schule" and wanted it to happen posthaste. If anything, it made his last couple weeks of preschool even harder, if such a thing were possible. Any hope I'd harbored of a miraculous change of attitude about drop-off died a permanent death.
Without much fanfare and without sufficient notice, we informed the teachers of Mikko's last day. I made Sam bring cupcakes so Mikko could say goodbye properly, dang it.
I wussed out of the process myself. Sam took him those last few weeks. Sam let them know our intentions.
I sat at home and cried — yes! cried — and felt consumed by guilt and regret. I still got the newsletters and saw the happy kids in the photos, particularly the ones who'd stuck it out till kindergarten, when they were given a Schultüte and a befitting send-off. I didn't take the reminders off my calendar, so they kept popping up to give me a pang and a hasty reach for the delete button. I bore it as penance.
Because it was my fault, right? It was my fault that we were ever in this stupid situation in the first place.
It was my (prideful?) idea to raise him bilingually. It was my research that found the multilingual preschool opening right in our neighborhood, and my prodding that brought us to that first open house. It was my consent that started him off when he was not even 2 years old. I still can't look at pictures from that month without heartache. He was just a baby. What was I thinking?
And then letting him be miserable — even if only intermittently — for two long years. Ugh. And I feel like the choice of taking him out now, in the midst of his misery, only confirms that it was all a mistake, that the last two years were wasted.
I know many things logically. I know that he did in fact enjoy (some of) his time at preschool. I have photographic proof of him smiling (sometimes). Despite the odds, he's made friends there, and we now are forming playdates with them outside of school. I'm sad and nervous that I am now his main source of German and Spanish (eep!), because he did, quite naturally, learn a lot of both languages there. And it did in fact give us the quiet time we were seeking twice a week, and I miss it — I won't say I don't. I wish, really wish, he could be happy in preschool, so that Sam and I (and now Alrik) could have some preschooler-free time. I don't think that's a selfish thing to wish for.
I also know logically that many, many parents don't have the luxury of not sending their kids to childcare, no matter how much either party might dislike it. I don't want to suggest any blame of anyone else for circumstances of needing or wanting (both are valid) outside childcare.
I also know (deep down) that I am not a bad mother. That I was not intending to torture my child. That I honestly thought and hoped he could be happy in such a nurturing and stimulating environment. That it's not my fault that his anxieties and sensitivities are so acute. That my responsibility is not to the teachers and other parents but to my child, even though I feel like I'm letting them down, implying blame (when it really is a lovely preschool — for everyone else), and severing our ties to the community we'd built over two years. I still fantasize about sending Alrik there in a few years, or even of persuading an older Mikko to give the after-school program a try. I feel this need, but fear as well, to write a letter to the directors explaining the turmoil of feelings I'm experiencing right now, to let them know it's not their fault, either.
When I try to bring up our decision to remove Mikko from preschool with other local parents, I typically get the same reaction: a recommendation of another preschool we could try. I don't think that's the problem, though. I mean, maybe if we'd started at the "right" preschool, maybe (maybe) Mikko would have been fine with it, but that ship has sailed. He doesn't even want his aunt Natalie to watch him, and he's known and loved her since birth. I poked at him some more yesterday to get him to tell me just what about preschool was so distressing to him. Was it the teachers? I asked. Were they nice to you? Did the kids not play with you? And he said, off-handedly, "I didn't like it when you leave."
So there it is.
I know eventually it won't matter so much to me what Mikko's preschool years were like. I know he'll grow and thrive and become accustomed to and crave separation from us — an ever-evolving dance of interdependence, where he moves further away at each turn but knows he can always come back. I'm enjoying these weeks of full-on unschooling more than I'd expected. It's kind of exhilarating for us to be our child's guides, and not have to make way for other people's schedules or directions or rules. With two kids, having one be away a couple afternoons a week didn't make as much of a difference, anyway.
For now, for us, for Mikko, pulling him from preschool was the right choice. Even when it feels like the last of a string of wrong ones.
How have you dealt with separation anxiety? Have your children had extreme reactions like this?
I feel presumptuous suggesting what you can and can't write in response to me, but I guess it's OK to give some guidelines of what I'd welcome and not. I don't want advice on how to get him back into preschool, or what type of preschool I should try next. I really hope not to hear more recriminations (I sent him too young, or too often, or to the wrong school, or I should have kept him in longer and tried X technique to help him adjust), because I have plenty in my own head. I don't need diagnoses of what's wrong with Mikko or suggestions on how to fix him, beyond letting him grow up at his pace. I don't really need much of anything but a hug right now. Mikko's fine — now that he's home — so really I just need to work through this for myself. If after all that, you're scared to comment at all, I don't blame you. I just wanted to be honest about where we're at with preschool, considering that I've written about the journey all along the way, starting from when it first unfolded, so it seems only fitting to finish out the tale as it's drawn to a close. Can you tell I'm feeling uneasy about this topic? I haven't even told my parents he's not in preschool anymore, because I already know they think we coddle him too much.
The good news is, Mikko's happy about the whole situation. He sometimes checks in: "We're not going to Schule today?" We're not ever going to Schule, we tell him. He smiles and skips down the hall.