When our eldest daughter started school several years back I wondered whether something was wrong with me because my heartstrings were not being torn painfully by the prospect of her beginning kindergarten.
I felt excited and a little bit apprehensive about the logistical undertaking of managing the 9am-3pm school day but I was not remotely wobbly. I felt the same this time last year when our middle daughter was starting primary school.
I’m generally a sensitive, anxious type who readily conjures a range of unnecessary emotions at the drop of a hat so this was something of a departure from form.
Both of our kids starting school has presented different challenges along the way – in some weeks it’s been nothing but challenges – but my being emotional about them embarking on their school days hasn’t been one of them.
Admittedly my heart did burst at the sight of them in their uniforms for the first time – their giant backpacks, stiff black shoes, bright white socks and starchy dresses really was a sight to behold. It still is. Watching them walk off for the first time wasn’t nothing but it also wasn’t a headline event dramatically dividing our life into “before” and “after”.
Perhaps my heart is cold because our girls attended childcare regularly so attending school wasn’t the leap it would have been had they spent every day until they were five at home.
But, perhaps, also the expectation that parents – mothers mostly – will feel teary and lost without their kids at home is another pressure parents don’t need?
My own mum doesn’t remember kids starting school back in the early 80s, when my siblings and I did, as the “thing” it is now. It was just something that happened.
These days it seems very little “just happens” in the pursuit of child-rearing.
It is not new that the intensity of the demands on modern parents is unprecedented. This observation from author Ruth Whippman on the fetishization of parenting is telling:
“Time-use surveys show that a mother now spends an average of four extra hours with her children every week than a mother in 1965, despite being far more likely to also work outside the home, while university-educated mothers put in a staggering extra nine hours. Much of this time is spent in what sociologists call “concerted cultivation” (think scrambling over a climbing frame two inches behind a four-year-old while maintaining an unbroken educational commentary about the park’s flora and fauna).”
In the same piece Whippman unpacks the research examining the relationship between parental unhappiness and the “intensity” of parenting attitudes. A group of mothers of young children were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements including: “You the mother should always provide the best, most intellectually stimulating activities to aid in your child’s development,” and “It is harder to be a good mother than a corporate executive.”
The findings were alarming.
The more strongly a mother agreed with these statements and the more “intense” her attitude towards parenting in general, “the unhappier she became and the greater her risk of depression, with the most intense mothers experiencing depression at a rate more than three times the level in the general population.”
A child starting school is a significant milestone, no doubt, and there is plenty that goes with it that is laced with emotion. It can feel scary and big because it is scary and big but equally it’s a stepping stone that children must take. An avoidable rite of passage.
Following on from the research cited above, the more pressure parents put on themselves and their kids about this gigantic change the more difficult it may be. Alternatively dialling down the ‘intensity’ may, literally, spell happier times.