As parents, we put a lot of focus on firsts as important milestones… first words, first steps, first day of school… but focusing on the lasts is also an important part of this crazy journey we call parenthood. Last night in a crib, last time nursing, last day of school. I didn’t expect to feel emotional about my daughter’s last day of her first (there’s a tongue twister for you!) year of elementary school. After all, we had already celebrated her last day of preschool and her first day as an official elementary school student. Weren’t those the milestones to focus on? Yeah, I thought so too. But as tomorrow looms, my oldest daughter’s last day of school before her first (there it is again) “real” summer vacation, I’m strangely emotional all over again.
In some ways, it feels like her childhood is just beginning. The years leading up to this were largely toddler years, full of playdates, playgrounds and innumerable firsts. But beginning tomorrow at 11:17am, she will begin a summer vacation that represents much much more. She is on her path through traditional schooling, where she spends ten months learning inside a classroom and two months playing, exploring, and learning entirely outside of the classroom. This past school year has been just as much of a growing year for us, her parents, as it has been for our daughter. Prior to this year our entire school community and experience was wrapped up in a daycare/preschool. Our daughter’s friends had been the same babies with whom she’d covertly shared pacifiers. The challenges she had on the playground were with the same kids she saw as extended family because they were the only friends she’d ever known. The experience she had was loving and sheltered since she spent day in and day out in the same small classrooms from infancy to nearly five years of age.
But this year, we became elementary school parents and entered into this next (huge) phase of her life (and thus, by extension, ours). We watched our daughter work to make friends, expand her education and truly blossom. We listened to her as she’d come home and report to us about the games she played and the occasional squabbles she had on the playground. We comforted her on the day this spring when she cried because another child had been particularly mean to her, and taught her how to stand up for herself when she felt that an injustice (of the five year old variety) had occurred. We watched as she read (like, really read) for the first time. And we noted, time and time again, how clear it was that she had transitioned to being completely and utterly a kid, not the little girl we still imagine her to be. She became aware of the world around her and its magnitude, as well as its potential harm. She put to use so many of the lessons we’ve spent the last first years teaching her – how to be a good friend, how to ask for help, how to question things and explore her curiosity. These days, we sit in awe as this little girl, this kid who turned us into parents in the first place, is continuing to challenge how we define parenthood. She went from being a preschool “graduate” entering elementary school to completing her first year of her traditional educational journey, and that feels just as big as the day she started.
So many of my own childhood memories revolve around summer break – from family vacations to sleep away summer camp to day after day of riding bikes from one friend’s house to another, jumping in swimming pools and setting up makeshift lemonade stands. Summer represents such a key part of growing up – a time to develop independence, to have adventures and explore, to continually redefine yourself. And here we are, at the doorstep of her first real summer break of many. We’ll spend the next two months playing, doing art projects, seeing friends, testing recipes, going on small trips, participating in day camp, and marking each milestone as it comes. Whether the first, or the last, or somewhere in between, this year has shown us how quickly we can rack up the milestones and see time pass us by. So, tonight when I put her to bed, I hugged her a little tighter, told her how proud I am of her, and marveled as she told me “Mommy, I just want to go to bed. Can you tell me that tomorrow?” (Perhaps really we’re on the doorstep of the teenage years… just a few years early!)