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The Preschool Blues

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It had been a restless night. I kept rolling over to check the clock, wondering when would I finally relax enough to drift into sleep. When 5:30am finally arrived, I was wide awake and eager to get to the task I'd been rolling over in my mind for weeks.

Game time. Down in the kitchen, armed with tin foil, Tupperware and treats, I was ready...to pack my very first school lunches.

I never thought turkey on wheat could take on so much meaning. But when my husband met me downstairs, we laughed at each other and agreed that as corny as it seemed, the occasion felt momentous.

Laid out on my kitchen counter were the new lunch boxes we had so carefully chosen a few weeks before. I was stepping into uncharted territory, joining the ranks of parents everywhere. And I was trying to live up to the standard my own mother set all those years ago. With four kids, she started her day at dawn most weekdays, running an efficient brown bag assembly line. Admittedly, we didn't always eat the finished product. Mom was on a health kick before it was in vogue. But we always looked forward to her special notes...those scribbled little pep talks on paper napkins: "I love you! Have a great day. Love, Mom."

It always made us feel special even if we were envious of someone else's Doritos and Hostess cupcakes.

"Now I really feel like a Dad," said my husband as he grinned and surveyed the menu for maiden lunches. It was the first day of nursery school and somehow, we were already feeling like empty nesters.

I need to preface this moment by saying I was fine with my two and a half year olds starting school this fall. We found a small, community oriented preschool in walking distance to our home. I had been taking our son and daughter to a transitional Mommy & Me class at the center for about a year. They would have friends in their class. All summer long, they told me they missed the Friday "Tot Shabbat," when the preschoolers would gather for challah and juice and sing the very same Hebrew songs that I grew up with. It was very sweet. But late in the summer, feeling overwhelmed by all of the registration forms - emergency contacts to list, permission slips to sign, checks to write...I got a little queasy. Then I went to see the school director for a little chat about what to expect and the conversation turned to lunch.

"Will they be signing up for hot lunch?" she inquired.

"Oh no, my kids are coming home to have lunch with me - They are only going for the morning session," I assured her.

She looked at me kindly - and broke the news.

"Actually the 9-noon kids eat lunch here," she said matter of factly -- totally unaware that this information would send me over the edge.

"They do?"

My eyes started to tear up.

"They won't eat lunch with me?" I asked, trying with every ounce of my being to hold it together.

I had imagined we would catch up on their day of finger painting and play dough over bagels at our favorite corner deli or enjoy PB and J around our table at home. Wow. Somehow not eating lunch with them really hit me hard. All of the sudden, I felt the unexpected weight of the "Preschool Blues."

"Don't worry," she said gently, "You can take them shopping for lunch boxes. That'll make it fun."

I later realized the lunch box shopping suggestion was really for my benefit...one of the steps in the grieving process as I faced the fact that my babies are growing up.

My son chose a bright red soft lunch bag shaped like a race car. A lavender lunch tote embellished with pink and purple glittery cupcakes caught my daughter's eye and made its way home with us. I started to get used to this idea of making lunch. I made lists in my head of all the other "supplies" I would need to prepare the perfect 11:30am meal. I trekked to Whole Foods and surveyed all of the neat little packages of apple chips, edamame and organic honey grahams. My kids are actually really good eaters with fairly sophisticated palates for two year olds (they've been eating things like curry, hummus and jerk chicken since they were teeny tiny). I made it my mission to ensure they would look forward to opening those cute little lunch bags and hopefully enjoy their meal apart from me.

And then, I feel so dorky to admit this, I experimented with possible menus for the next two weeks - introducing the kids to new varieties of sandwiches, wraps, snacks and healthy desserts. Okay, dessert was never a tough sell.

Finally, the first day of school arrived. On the big morning, after the sandwich baggies were sealed and the plastic containers snapped shut, I wrote each of them a note on a napkin - "Have a great day. I love you! Love, Mom" - And I adhered a shiny heart sticker to each one.

My husband smiled. "You know they can't read," he said.

"But they will soon," I replied. "And I want to be ready."

Please check out my website and weekly email, The Well Mom for tips and inspiration about motherhood and the pursuit of wellness.

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