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Goodbye at the school gate

Easing children into playschools is as much a lesson for the parents as it is for the children

The playschool gates offer some reprieve for first-time parents.
The playschool gates offer some reprieve for first-time parents.

The playschool to which we send our toddler in Mumbai has a gentle approach to ease children into their first independent experience. When they start playgroup, they attend for only half an hour the first week, then an hour, then 2, eventually making their way to the full 3 hours.

This is, we quickly discovered, as much for the sake of the parents as the children. On the first day, the new parents (mostly the mothers, why pretend otherwise? The emotional cost of parenthood is still largely shouldered by women, but that’s a different essay) hovered outside the school gates for the entire half-hour. We could hear the children screaming and crying, we craned our necks, each trying to identify our own child’s cries in the din.

“Please move away from the gate," the guard said. “It is harder for the children if they can see you."

And definitely harder for us if we can hear them, but we still shuffled over, only a few inches, and kept listening.

Like everything about early parenthood, this felt so momentous and unique. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, how much research you do, how many people you speak to, there’s no real way to know what to expect when you are expecting.

Parenthood, a boringly universal experience, feels so deeply unique when you are thrown into it. You want to tell everyone your labour story, you want to tell everyone how tired you are, how your newborn responds to tummy time, and then how your baby has learnt to roll over, and pull herself up to stand, how she has picked up a scattering of words, grown her teeth, learnt to kick a ball, started drawing straight lines. Each moment feels so significant. And things move so fast and with such urgency that you quickly forget yesterday because today is all-consuming. How can I possibly remember yesterday when today my two-and-a-half-year-old is getting close to figuring out how to unbuckle the straps of her car seat?

So I hardly registered that the half an hour at school had turned into 3 and that somewhere along the way my daughter had started loving it and waiting by the door at 8.30am, even on a Saturday. School has become part of our lives and our schedules and I no longer stop to think about the emotional upheaval of those first days and weeks.

That is until last week, when school reopened after winter break.

I was a few minutes late in dropping off my daughter so we rushed through the gate, I kissed her goodbye and hurried back out to get to my desk. But I stopped as I saw a cluster of women standing outside nervously, chatting but not really listening to each other, looking through the gates.

“Is something going on?" I asked one of them.

“Were you inside? Can you hear a lot of crying? Did you see a boy wearing a brown dinosaur T-shirt? Was he okay?" a woman asked me, hungry for news from the other side of the brightly coloured but formidable gates.

The new mothers.

I always get a jolt of comfort and alarm when I realize how the revolving doors keep revolving. Becoming a parent is such a shocking change, you want to shout out from the rooftops—for vanity, for help, to just say it out loud to try and make sense of it. But it’s such a common experience. How soothing to be reminded of that.

“I’m sure he’s fine," I said to her, eager to pass on the wisdom of six months, but she wasn’t actually listening to me, she was listening only to see if she could identify the sound of her own child. It’s okay; when my younger daughter starts playgroup here in a few months, I am sure I will see this mother again as I stand outside and she drops her son off and rushes past.

Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall (Bloomsbury). Her new book, Destination Wedding (Bloomsbury), will beout in June.

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