09/09/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Letting Go When Your Grip Is Tighter Than You Think

Jenn Horton

I struggled with writing a post about my daughter starting kindergarten. There were the first few sentences I got through about leading up to Day One and the bittersweetness that comes with it. Then there was the paragraph I tinkered with about overcoming fear once the first day was under our belts. Then the synopsis about how after the first week, her independence seemed to have skyrocketed and her love of learning with it. But nothing got off the ground. Except, well, kindergarten.

Kindergarten was HAPPENING, we were in it and it just kept on going... the newness and novelty suddenly replaced with, holy crap, we're really on this kindergarten train and there are NO STOPS, let alone naps. (Remember those?) I couldn't complete a thought, really, let alone a whole post. My mind couldn't keep up, and my heart was in a confused state of pride and fear of the unknown.

I did not expect how hard it was going to be for me to transition. Forget the 5-year-old! She has been a freaking champion of change, putting her mama to shame. I was riddled with unexpected anxiety (the worst kind), and wondering just where I dropped my mama mojo on the drive to school.

My daughter's school is K-8, and while the first graders through middle schoolers are vets when it comes to morning routine expectations, kindergarteners (and really, their parents), get a two-week pass to transition the kids into the classroom. Parents are permitted to walk the kids to their lockers and help them get accustomed to their to do list. Bell rings, walk in the building and straight to locker. Check. Unload lunch bag, snack, backpack and any particular "extras" in the locker. Check. Bring water bottle and daily folder into the classroom with varying items: milk/lunch money, homework, school forms, etc. Sort said folder items in particular baskets and boxes in the classroom. Check. Move popsicle stick with your name into hot or cold lunch basket. Check. Put empty folder in mailbox. Check. Begin morning work at seat. Check. This routine consists of two classes of 30 with two teachers and two TAs all vying for (head)space and mobility in just a few short minutes before the next bell. Yes, the first week was a bit dicey for 60 newly-minted kindergarteners. Into week two though, they are mostly nailing it, and the moms and dads are easing back a bit. Mostly.

I thought separation anxiety was a pediatric affliction. What was going on with me? Stomach in knots? Check.

This morning was going to be "the day" -- a couple days earlier than our next week deadline of no more parental accompaniment into the school. I'd kiss her goodbye outside and watch her head into school on her own, ready to master her day. I knew she could handle it.

Apparently, I could not. All it took was one, "Mom, are you coming in with me?" and I grabbed her hand to walk inside together.

I easily could have said, "You can do it, honey. I love you!" There wasn't fear in her eyes or timidity in her voice. She would have been better than fine. But I couldn't let go. I chose to hold onto her for just a little bit longer.

It's small and insignificant in the grand scheme. I know that. In just a few days, I have no choice in the matter and she's at it all by her big and bad Big Girl self. But in that moment, Mama Bear wanted to hold on to her cub. She just didn't need to hold on to me.

It's that kind of heartbreak that you know is a wonderful thing in the proverbial big picture. She is ready, so ready, and you're the one that needs to catch up. So many times in these early years we've been the ones pushing them ahead -- socially, emotionally, academically. We are fully in the driver seat, in control of their seat belt's click and unclick. But then these unexpected moments happen where, often at the start of a new chapter, your grip on their spirit feels tighter than you knew possible, and way more than it should be. You can sense it, and so can they. They're the ones starting to release their own little fingers seeking adventure and flight. It's there time, and you have to let them fly.

Perhaps I've been reading too much Dr. Seuss's Are You My Mother? lately, thinking my baby bird is going to get so confused out in the world alone and start asking animals and excavators if they are her mother. Call me a helicopter mom in this instance, if you must. I know I strive for a balance in our daily norm and try to foster independence, yet here I have been in these early kindergarten days with a hovering heart, fearful hers or mine would crash into a million pieces. All because of... kindergarten? I was losing my grip on reality, when she really just needed me to loosen my grip on her a bit.

I told her I would follow her up the stairs and watch her do everything on her own. "Pretend I'm not behind you. It's good practice."

Ugh. Pretend I'm not behind you?!? I minced those words a bit. I'm always behind you! In spirit! I'm your biggest fan! I'm...I'm...

She looked at me, puzzled at first, smiled, and said, "Like a shadow. My shadow is always there, mama. Well, when it's sunny it is."

This girl. She always knows just what to say especially when I do not.

"YES! Only, I'm a magic shadow. Rain or shine, I'm behind you, Zoe."

And before I knew it, she had her locker situated and was heading into class with her necessities. An almost-forgotten, quick kiss on my cheek and she was gone.

My cheerleading shadow followed closely behind her to her seat, and will wherever kindergarten may take her. I hope it gives her peace knowing she will always have it on her side and at the ready. My heart will always hover, just sometimes quieted, as I watch with pride in the shadow of her light.