The Worst Goodbye

I knew it would be hard. I said it would be hard. But, it wasn’t hard. It was excruciating.

Leaving the kids’ school for the last time was gut-wrenching, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

I know I’m terrible at goodbyes. I hate watching people I love walk out of my life. But, I’ve said goodbye to plenty of people I love. I’ve left places I love. I’ve known I was closing chapters in my life before, but nothing compares to this goodbye.

I was completely unprepared for how it hurt me.

That last day, I watched from the booth on the other side of the one-way mirror for the last time, knowing that I might never again observe my kids in such a way. There is something amazing about witnessing your kids as they are when you aren’t visible, when they are standing on their own two feet without your presence to guide them.

That last day, I collected their art projects and extra changes of clothes.

I teared up as I individually thanked every, single person I saw, because they all are part of my children’s successes.

Their faces were sad too, because J had been at the school for longer than probably any other child. The age limit increased at exactly the time he would have aged out, so instead of getting nearly two years there, he had three.

I could see how much J meant to all of his teachers. That child isn’t the most exuberant one or the funniest or the silliest. But, he is solid and reliable and thoughtful and kind. His loyalty is rewarded by a small circle of people who love him fiercely. And maybe that’s what hurt so much about leaving. I was prepared for saying goodbye to people whom I respect, people who devote their lives to the service of helping children. I knew that leaving a place where we were all so comfortable would sting. But, we were leaving people who knew my children better than most. The purpose of coming home was to change that, to give my kids a chance to grow up around family and dear friends. But, in their early years, the dearest friends my children knew were their therapists and teachers.

Every teacher who said goodbye to J had tears in her eyes. They rubbed his head for the last time and patted his back and sent him off into the world a boy instead of a baby.

One of J’s teachers even walked us out into the parking lot, as if she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye. She watched us walk away. I was so touched, but I stitched my face into a smile for the kids as I buckled them into their carseats. I managed a cheerful “Say goodbye to your school!” as we drove away.

And then I silently cried all the way home.

It’s Time To Move On

I think we sold our house today.

I won’t trust that it’s sold until we have the check in our hand, but in the short term, it really makes no difference. It’s now time to begin rapidly packing up, shutting down this life we’ve made here. It’s time to put all our treasures in boxes and pull up stakes and move to a place that I hope will become a final destination, the place my children will call home.

I hate moving, and it’s always sad. This is our fifth out-of-state move in ten years. But, this move is different, and what is painful about this move is so different. It’s not the friends I’ve made, because I haven’t made many. It’s not the people I see on a daily basis, because I don’t see many. I’m not leaving a job behind or a school. The most important people in my daily life will all be going with me.

I am most sad to leave my kids’ preschool. The teachers there have been fundamental in shaping my kids, in giving them confidence as well as knowledge. They have pushed my babies to high standards, encouraging them to achieve new goals. They have loved my kids, cherished them in a way I never could have expected. I was so worried to leave J that first day at school when he was a 16-month-old baby who couldn’t crawl or walk or stand on his own. Literally, he couldn’t stand on his own two feet, and now? He runs and talks and laughs. He has a pack of boys he plays with. He is independent and confident and more outspoken than I could have imagined two years ago when he wasn’t speaking at all. The transformation in just the last six months has been phenomenal.

I am deeply saddened that M won’t have the same experience. She has only had four months at the school, but she already has such a joy and exuberance for learning. Her teachers thrill her. She watches for their reactions, and she soaks up their attention. M looks straight into the face of each little friend in her class with such excitement, as if they’re all her new best friends. I have no doubt she would love for me to just leave her at school everyday. And I would, if I could.

And our physical therapist. Our pt. Oh, how will I leave her? These last 3.5 years, she has known both my kids better than most of the people in their lives. She knows their personalities. She has been aware of the big and little things happening in our lives. She is one of the only friends I have here, one of the few women I see on a regular basis. During this time of such loneliness for me, she has been an island of reassurance and kindness. I don’t have to explain what has been hard about this life to her, because she already knows. But, she’s also a steady reminder that other families have it so much worse. She gives me the freedom to fret and question and wonder, but she also has great suggestions and advice just when I need them the most.

All the people I am dreading hugging goodbye are related to this difficult and beautiful journey we’ve been on. I swear everything about this place from the time I arrived five months pregnant and only six weeks away from delivering J until this very moment has been about having preemies. This entire chapter of my life’s book is about the magic of these kids.

And it doesn’t matter how ready you are to start writing a new chapter, closing the book on a place is difficult. Especially when it’s the place where you had your two tiny babies.

The Importance of Preschool for Preemies

I have become such an advocate for preschool education. In fact, my own personal rule is that I want my kids in part-time preschool as early as possible. I stress that this is a philosophy that we’ve adopted in our own home, and I would never apply it across the board.

What would we have decided if our kids weren’t preemies? I’ll never know. Would I have been working full-time? Probably, which would have meant my kids would have been in daycare. But, my personal decision when J was a baby was that I didn’t want a babysitter overseeing his therapy, and I was at an in-between place in my career anyway. I couldn’t envision seeking full-time employment in the middle of such a difficult time for our family.

Those were our decisions for our family and by no means would I apply what worked for us to other families.

But, I will say this: As babies and small children, preemies are different. They often require trips to specialists, or at least extra visits to pediatricians. They need special protection during cold and flu season, especially against RSV. They often need therapy–and sometimes lots of therapy–to help with eating, walking, and all the other things full-term babies seem to grasp on their own. With J, physical and speech therapy made a huge difference, and I’ve written about how indebted I feel to his therapists. But, another area that I feel has been a key to his success has been preschool.

We’ve been lucky enough to have access to a preschool that specializes in developmental delays. It integrates children at or above their ages in terms of development with those who are delayed for a variety of reasons. Interaction with other children does wonders for preemies, especially when the preemie is an only child, as J was. He was so cautious and reserved that he needed to see what other children his age were doing to encourage him to do more. And playing on a playground or seeing kids in a playgroup didn’t cut it. He needed the academic environment, the structure, and the proven methods that a preschool can provide.

I could write volumes about our experience with his preschool. They have taken a baby who couldn’t walk or talk and encouraged him to be the bright, curious, and energetic boy who was hiding just beneath the surface. J’s delays confined him to a body that didn’t do so much of what he wanted, and all of the hours at school helped free him. It has been a magical transformation to witness.

And it has been eye-opening for me. I’ve had people tell me that developmental delays aren’t a big deal, that kids will catch up, and while that is probably true, a small child’s brain is phenomenally elastic. Studies show that the more a child can do in those first few years, the better that child will do long-term. So, just because many preemies in the past caught up by age 5 or 6, when they were entering kindergarten, doesn’t mean that I should be relaxed about helping my kids reach their full potential as early as possible. And the truth is that many of our preemies now have few comparisons. The development of surfactant therapy in 1990 has contributed to the increased health of the tiniest preemies. I doubt J would have lived without it, and he certainly wouldn’t be as healthy. Our babies are living in the first decades of increased health for preemies, and along with that health comes increased possibilities.

J and M have received home therapy where someone trained in childhood development encouraged me to try different techniques to help my babies. It was home-based and focused specifically on the needs of my children. Sometimes it was helpful, and sometimes it really wasn’t helpful at all. My children do not perform for me the way they do for their teachers and their peers, and I would never claim to be trained or skilled in childhood development the way teachers and therapists are. Not every preemie has access to the kind of resources from which we’ve benefitted. I know we are so lucky. But, I do think that any good preschool could help preemies who meet minimum requirements for enrollment, such as walking or being potty trained, and I think it’s wonderful for preemies to get exposure to other children as soon as they are healthy enough.

All of this is on my mind because M just started attending J’s school last week. She is 13 months old now, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about her opportunity to learn and grow at the place that has done so much for J. (As a side note, neither of my very independent children cared less when I dropped them off for their first days at school. I thought M might look a little sad, since she is more attached to me than J was, but I was totally wrong. She didn’t even give me a second glance!)

From my experience, little kids need interaction with other little kids, and not just in playgroups. But, I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again: I don’t know anything about raising full-term babies. Preemies are all I know!