When I was a kid, I loved going to the store with my mom. I was enamored with the bright lights, pretty colors and cart rides. As we checked out, the cashiers would put orange stickers on the top of our milk gallon, and they’d always give me one for my hand. Then my mom would give me a nickel to buy three gumballs from the machine, and I was in heaven.
When I was in college, there was a 24-hour superstore within driving distance. Sometimes, when I’d feel lonely, I’d go there just to wander around. It was always a comfort, and a reminder of those simpler times with my mom.
So this morning, I went to the store before my 18-month old daughter, Autumn, awoke. Yes, I needed diaper cream to send with her on what would be her first time at daycare, but I also needed the trip to the store. It was gloriously bright, the aisles overflowing with Halloween delights. A guy behind the counter asked me about my morning and bid me good day.
Everything felt light, and good, and right with the world.
Until we went to daycare.
Then it was awful.
I had taken the day off to be there for her first drop-off, and now I was scarred with the image of terror on her face and the sound that went with it as I handed her over to the teacher. I wanted to stay, help her unpack, warm her up, but the woman took her backpack, stopped me at the door, and said:
“She’ll be okay. And so will her mommy.”
I didn’t believe her, on either account. And as I walked away, all I could think about was how quickly the teacher made me leave. It was like ripping off a band-aid, and I don’t ever rip off band-aids. I know it’s supposed to be less painful, but I still like to take my time and peel slowly. And I wonder why, when I answered a bazillion questions, they didn’t ask how I wanted my drop-off to go. Because I for sure wanted mine with extra minutes, hold the tears.
As I drove home, all I could think about was the opposites book we read the previous night -- in/out, weak/strong, heavy/light -- and how at that moment, I felt only heavy. Everywhere I looked, there were moms who were not me walking with their toddler who was not Autumn. It was like when I was trying to get pregnant and suddenly every woman around me was with child.
I began questioning myself. Did I really need to work that badly? If I decided to become a stay-at-home mom, how long could we live off my savings and without benefits? If we get sick, we could drink tea and pray? We could live in a tent and shower at campsites? We could eat berries and catch fish?
But I like shopping and Autumn would surely miss her cottage cheese.
A call from my sister, Robin, interrupted my thoughts. She wanted to know about her niece’s first day.
“We were both hysterical when I left,” I told her.
She reminded me of an incident from last week at the pumpkin patch. I bought Autumn a sign and had to wait for it to get personalized. She wanted to explore the farm store, and Robin offered to take her while I continued waiting for the inscription. Autumn stood debating. Stay with Mommy or explore with Auntie Robin? Because exploring with Mommy wasn’t an option. Then she took Auntie Robin’s hand and off they went.
“A month ago,” Robin said, “she wouldn’t have made that choice. Maybe that means she’s ready to break away a little bit?” Maybe it does, but maybe she was just really curious about the store. And while Robin isn’t a stranger, she also isn’t someone Autumn lives with.
That morning on the baby monitor I saw Autumn sleeping and it reminded me of her ultrasounds, how that tiny dot formed into my daughter and was now a fully formed baby girl. That was 18 months ago and all I did was blink.
Maybe she was ready to break away, and maybe it didn’t matter that I wasn’t ready to let her go. I spent the afternoon replaying the image of her walking away with Robin last weekend instead of screaming in horror as I left her that morning. I went to another store and soaked in the brightness, and I felt lighter.
Until I heard the report from the daycare that while my daughter loves nothing more than eating and dancing, she didn’t touch her challah and wouldn’t let go of the teacher’s hand when the music was playing. Maybe it’ll get better. Maybe not.
I’m working on making peace with my daughter changing and the world continuing to be filled with opposites -- ups and downs, beginnings and endings, hellos and good-byes -- and I’ll always have my stores, with their colors and stickers and gumballs.