the smell of my desperation has become a stench

The beginning of big kid school

This post is brought to you by Target.

It’s been about two weeks since Marlo started kindergarten at the same school where Leta attends fifth grade, and if you were to ask her how she likes it I’m not sure which of the seven different answers you’d get. One day she will tell you that it is her favorite place on earth and she would like to live there. The next day she will tell you that the boy with the green shirt shoved her during lunch and because of that no one should be required to attend school ever. Or she’ll reveal to you that mischievous side of her that I have documented so frequently here and say with a completely straight face, “School? I don’t go to school. There is no such thing.”

On the first day I was worried that the drop-off would be difficult given that her drop-offs for the majority of preschool were filled with tears and resistance. But I guess the novelty of attending the “big kid school” overrode any of her fears. There was no crying, no pleading. She didn’t transform into an octopus and cling to my leg. It helped that her teacher who has worked extensively in early childhood education programs redirected each kid’s attention away from the doting parents toward the colorful rug in the middle of the room. It was magical to watch, like she was the fairy godmother in Cinderella waving a wand and making everyone’s worry disappear.

I may or may not have sung “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” under my breath as I skipped away. And then turned right back around and asked if she could transform my yoga pants into a killer ball gown.

Things remained this way for two days, and I was hopeful that it would continue. But on the third morning Marlo refused to enter the room and began crying hysterically. I knelt down, hugged her and asked her to tell me what was wrong.

“Please don’t leave,” she repeated again and again in my ear, her arms gripping my neck. I told her that I understood what she was feeling and assured her that I would see her right after school. We’d spend the entire afternoon and evening together. Her teacher saw this happening and when she came over and touched Marlo on the shoulder, Marlo reluctantly let go. She entered the room willingly, but looked back at me the entire way with sadness in every muscle of her face. Drop-offs continued to play out exactly like this.

There have recently been some very significant changes in Marlo’s life including this new school, a totally new routine, a class filled with kids she does not know, different winding hallways, and walls lined with towering lockers. She is processing a lot for a five year old. Even Leta is having to make adjustments. The work in fifth grade is significantly more intense than it was in fourth grade, and she’s slowly adjusting to the new rhythm. But instead of showing her frustration by crying at drop-offs she comes home every day, throws herself on the couch, and… wait for it… declares that life is totally unfair.

I hug her, assure her that everything is going to be okay, and then I tell her that I’ve ordered a book about American history so that I can help her understand the proper definition of “unfair.”

I immediately consulted with a social worker about Marlo’s separation anxiety, and she gave me a couple of ideas about helping to ease her worries. The first thing she had me do was sit in a chair behind Marlo and face her away from me. I then asked if she could see me. Naturally, Marlo whipped her head around and said, “Of course I can. You’re right there.” I told her to turn back around and close her eyes. Then I asked her the same question again. She threw both of her arms out from her sides to indicate that this game was just so boring and without turning around bellowed, “YES!”

“How can you see me?” I prodded.

“Because I know you’re sitting in that chair!” she answered.

At drop-offs I can remind her of this exercise. I may not be in the room at school with her, but I’m at home sitting in my chair. And she can see me in that chair.

Then the social worker told me that it might be beneficial if, in addition to being able to keep a favorite toy in her backpack, I have a few pictures of us together or pictures of some fun vacations and activities for her to access if she gets uneasy at school. So I printed out a ton of my Instagram photos—some of me and her together, some of her with her sister, some of our vacation to Minnesota, and a few of the dogs—and taped them inside a notebook (you could use something similar) with enough space around each one to let her doodle and draw and add stickers if she wanted to. I don’t normally get crafty like this, but this activity filled a lazy Sunday morning where we lingered around in our pajamas for far longer than is probably socially acceptable.











I went a step further, printed out a photo of the three of us together and taped it to the inside of a brand new lunchbox (the photo is laminated so that it won’t fuse with a sliced peach). At first I thought I wouldn’t tell her and just let it be a surprise when she got to school, but I didn’t want it to trigger any waterworks right there in the middle everyone’s goldfish crackers and juice boxes. So I had her help me affix it to the inside of the top of the box.





“At lunch you can pretend to share your banana with Leta!” I said as we finished the project. She started laughing hysterically because she was in on the joke, because she is very aware of how much Leta hates bananas. I won’t be surprised when this lunchbox returns home and Leta’s face is smeared with banana.

She’s been attending school with these two things for a few days. When the bell rings I lean down and remind her to see me sitting in that chair, and then I point first to the notebook in her backpack and then to her lunchbox and say, “We are with you always.” I emphasize this by holding my palm over my heart and then reaching that same hand over to hold it over hers. I think she’s still trying to get her footing, but the tears have eased up a bit. She remains a little uncertain, but I think that if I keep reinforcing these things and encourage her to express her feelings to me that things will get better. Growing up is scary, but everything will be okay.

Everything will be okay.

Those words were spoken to me by my mother during so many transitional and frightening moments of my childhood, and they always made me feel better. Now it’s my turn to pay that forward.


This post is brought to you by Target. Get More Cuuuute with Hello Kitty at Target.

  • Karen Walrond

    2014/09/16 at 9:00 am

    Damn, supermom. Way to go. Love everything about this.

  • The Absent Minded Housewife

    2014/09/16 at 9:02 am

    Dammit. I’m menstrual and I’m sterile and it’s too early in the day to tear up. I’m going to go put a roast in the oven. Sniff.

  • Sarah Dillon Hart

    2014/09/16 at 9:17 am

    Did you print the photos at home or did you use a service? They look great! I haven’t found a good service for printing my Instagram pics.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 9:25 am

    I found an app that’s super easy and the delivery is super quick:

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 9:26 am

    I’m laughing because you and I have synced. Save some roast for me.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 9:28 am

    Thank you for this, friend. Both she and I are trying to keep our heads above water.

  • Sarah Dillon Hart

    2014/09/16 at 9:33 am

    Thanks! And wishing you continued luck with smooth drop-offs. I have a kindergartener too, and I was a nervous wreck the entire first day after a tearful drop-off.

  • The Absent Minded Housewife

    2014/09/16 at 9:37 am

    In that case, I’ll save you cheap liquor from my husband’s last unofficial school faculty party.

  • julesmaas

    2014/09/16 at 9:49 am

    Oh my gosh, I live in a little bit of dread of this day, though I try not to think about it because I understand that small people can smell fear… My 3yr old triplets go through phases of trading off on separation anxiety, brief but very intense. I am pinning these ideas for future use. They make so much sense and I wish you and Marlo continued success with them! My girls are my only experience with children, so judging by how much my heart broke when any one of them had their first shots, went to the ER at 1am, stopped snuggling with me, etc…I know I’m in for some serious heart-wrenching. Oi.

  • julesmaas

    2014/09/16 at 9:50 am

    And thanks for the printstagram link – I was going to ask where you printed those!

  • Sonja

    2014/09/16 at 9:57 am

    This is great, Heather. I’m going to remember this….my 2nd grader sometimes “misses me so much” at school. I hadn’t thought of using a picture of us.

  • Brook Simpson

    2014/09/16 at 10:09 am

    Thank you for sharing this; it gives me hope. We often struggle with my son not wanting to go to preschool; I’m going to try some of these tips with him. The whole process is heartbreaking as much as it is necessary and good–the other day his teacher told us that another child hit him, and in that moment I just wanted to wrap him up and keep him safe in our house forever. But. The struggles and challenges are all part of it, I know. Onward we go, into this thing called not being a baby anymore.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/09/16 at 10:15 am

    I just have to say that you and I are at the same place. Although I have two older kids and onein 2nd grade, my baby has just started kindergarten and I love so very much how eloquently you use words to describe the joy and hilarity of this wonderful age. I KNOW Marlo and my LuLu would be fast friends and equal partners in drunken debauchery!

  • Marta

    2014/09/16 at 10:15 am

    This comes in handy. My son is five and I have the same problem. It breaks my heart to see him sad and crying every morning. I like the idea with the picture in the lunch box. I might try it today. Good luck with Marlo!

  • Katybeth

    2014/09/16 at 10:43 am

    Such thoughtful ideas. You’re not only showing your daughter that everything will be okay; you’re showering her with compassion and empathy which someday she will pass along.

  • housepea

    2014/09/16 at 10:45 am

    I think you’re doing the right thing. “Everything will be okay” is pretty much my mantra when I need it and it really helps. Well done, Dooce. 🙂

  • Anna

    2014/09/16 at 10:52 am

    I feel for Marlo! For whatever reason ( I am sure there was one that they just didn’t explain to 3 year old me) my parents would take turns dropping me off at school. They followed the schedule very closely and then one day my Dad dropped me off on a day that my Mom was supposed to and all hell broke loose. I clung to my Dad’s leg and then I clung to the teacher’s leg. I was all over the place on the emotional scale all because of a schedule shift. I like to think I adapt to a change of my plans much better now….I like to think that. 🙂

  • Beth

    2014/09/16 at 11:03 am

    Great post and I don’t even care that it was sponsored. My little male version of Marlo needs a notebook like that, only it will have ninjas or super mario bros on it.

  • PhotoCoyote

    2014/09/16 at 11:09 am

    Tears, tears, tears. What a wonderful mother you are, Heather. I wish my mom was still alive because I need her to tell me everything will be okay. Because everything is not okay in my life right now. So. very. not. okay. Your daughters are so fortunate to have you. And vice versa.

  • Rachael

    2014/09/16 at 11:16 am

    I volunteer at a camp for kids with heart conditions; many of our new campers have never left their parents overnight, much less on an island filled with potential new friends. I think this idea is fabulous for kids who may have separation anxiety and I am going to pass along this method to the camp director to pass along to our camp parents. I hope Marlo continues to gain confidence in her new routine. I’m sure it won’t be long before she is leading her “kids” on new adventures.

  • Jen Moore

    2014/09/16 at 11:16 am

    Beautiful! Just finished reading Ariel Gore’s essays on motherhood…you might like it, it’s called, The Mother Trip. When you are tempted to think you are a “bad” mom, look back on this post. xo

  • buta86

    2014/09/16 at 11:20 am

    Sometimes I feel like I am the worst mother in the world compared to you. Do you ever have times where you are annoyed with your girls and are ready to strangle them? Because I feel like you always have it together and I feel like I always don’t. Nobody tells you that being a parent the first 4 years is the easy part. This just gets harder and harder.

  • talonsage

    2014/09/16 at 11:26 am

    Dang woman, that is verreah awesome!! I seriously never would have thought of something like that!! Though to be fair. Chibi’s never had separation anxiety like that. She, however, did have issues with me being on time to pick her up. I knew this was an issue, and the first time I was more than one minute late for picking her up from science (traffic had been a bitch and thus threw my timing off) she freaked out. Luckily, one of the other moms stayed with her and reassured her that I’d be there soon. She didn’t QUITE believe Rachel’s mom, but after that we did have to have several discussions about how Mommy (she’s 14 now, I’m allowed to be nostalgic, dangit!) will ALWAYS come back, no matter what.

    It took awhile, but once she got it, if I wasn’t on time I’d have to go searching for her. Aspies are good at one extreme or the other.

  • Joy Fisher

    2014/09/16 at 11:27 am

    Another tip I was given was to be very specific about the time you will next see her. If the last thing of the day is to, say, all sit together on the rug for circle time, then in the morning at dropoff say, “Ok, remember, I’ll be here for you after your last circle time on the rug,” rather than “at the end of the day.” Similar to her picturing you in the chair, she can picture herself at circle time and know that you are right outside the door. Love the idea of photos in the lunchbox and notebook. Will def be using that this week. Thanks! Joy

  • Jeannine

    2014/09/16 at 11:59 am

    Great post. My kids have been going through a rough year too. We’ve lost some very close family members – 5 in one year so definitely more than our share of death and sadness. A friend recommended a book that really helped. It only briefly touches upon death, and the focus is more on separation. The theme is very much like what you described here. Thought you might want to check it out. It’s called “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst. Here is a link:

  • Kristen Meere

    2014/09/16 at 12:35 pm

    This was just lovely. You’re an excellent mother. But, do you mean to say that it’s not socially acceptable to spend an entire Sunday in your pajamas? ‘Cause that’s how we spend most of them in my house.

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/09/16 at 12:55 pm

    I am 48 years old and I want that Hello Kitty lunchbox.

    Sending Marlo along with pictures is such a great idea. 🙂

  • KarmaBum

    2014/09/16 at 12:59 pm

    Hi, Heather! Looooooong time reader, first time commenter. Do you mind telling me what you use to print out your instagram photos? They look great, and I love how they’re already square-shaped!

  • Marcy

    2014/09/16 at 1:00 pm

    I used to spray my perfume on my daughter’s wrist and remind her that if she felt lonely she could smell mom right there with her.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 1:33 pm

    That’s a great idea! I wear a certain lotion I can rub on her arms and hands. I’ll try that tomorrow.

  • Monica

    2014/09/16 at 1:36 pm

    I too had my baby girl start kindergarten this year. Sometimes I do this little trick and it helps: I kiss my daughter’s hand (the palm) and I tell her that when she is sad or lonely, she can place her palm on her cheek and get a kiss from me to remind her how much I love her!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 2:17 pm

    I let her stay in her pajamas that entire day, actually. All day long. I only changed out of mine because a parent was dropping a friend off for Leta and Leta would have been mortified if I’d answered the door looking like that. When she’s in her teens I might not be so merciful.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 2:18 pm

    Ah, great advice! I love all these ideas to try out.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 2:27 pm

    We ALL have times when we are annoyed with our kids, all of us, and if anyone says, “Not me!” then that person needs to look up the word DENIAL. I get frustrated and tired and confused, and sometimes I feel like I’m just winging it. I most certainly do not have it together all the time. I trip up and make mistakes like all of us do.

    These two crazy conflicting schedules of theirs have made me step up my game, for sure, and I’ve consciously made an effort to be more organized and attentive and prepared. You’re right, it does get harder. But I think it gets easier in completely different ways, and I try to balance out my frustration sometimes by reminding myself that I’m not spoon feeding them anymore. I don’t have to plan my day around nap schedules anymore. I’m not pacing the floor all night long with a screaming infant (although sometimes fifth grade math makes me feel like I’m pacing the floor all night long with a screaming infant).

    You are so not alone. Remember that.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 2:28 pm

    Everything will be okay. Let me and everyone here stand in for your mom today.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/09/16 at 2:31 pm

    My family moved in the middle of my kindergarten year. I cried and cried and cried for weeks when my mom would drop me off at the new school. That’s why it breaks my heart so much, I so totally and thoroughly understand her sadness.

  • Amber

    2014/09/16 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you, thank you! My queen bee 6 year old is going through some intense separation anxiety as well. Some of these I’ve done, but she is going to lose her mind when she gets a hello kitty book full of pictures to look through when she hits her sad times. Brilliant idea!

  • Joni

    2014/09/16 at 4:02 pm

    When my three kids were Marlo’s age, I would kiss the palm of their hand on the way in to school, and tell them if they needed a kiss, it was right there in their hand. They still talk about it……

  • Kate

    2014/09/16 at 4:12 pm

    Ooh! There’s a book called The Kissing Hand that is about exactly that. Illustrated with raccoons. It’s adorable, and such a cute idea.

  • Kate

    2014/09/16 at 4:16 pm

    These are all great ideas, Heather. It’s so heartbreaking. One thing I used to do for my kiddo who suffered terrible separation anxiety is to put funny photos in her lunch box, pictures of animals I’d print off from Cute Overload. Then once she could read I’d write notes too, but she always looked forward to discovering what silly picture I’d put in her lunch box each day.

  • Jeanie

    2014/09/16 at 4:25 pm

    Do you think these suggestions will work with a dog? I have a seven-month-old labradoodle with separation anxiety.

  • Kim's Kitchen Sink

    2014/09/16 at 5:06 pm

    Gawd I’m just all sorts of waterworks over here. Beautiful.

  • RzDrms

    2014/09/16 at 5:46 pm

    I’m still pissed off that Hello Kitty isn’t really a cat.

  • Louise J

    2014/09/16 at 6:10 pm

    Heather, you wee MINX! For the first time in weeks I put mascara on this morning, only to read your lovely bang-on, heartfelt blog. And then I read your comments to the comments and now I have these terrible watery-black streaks down my cheeks. Way too depleted to put on a roast but I’m hoping that a coffee will restore me. But while I’m here may I just say how much i love your writing and your stories. I identify with you strongly, having an eccentric, hilarious 7 year old boy (yes, an informal betrothal could be considered…but only if that marriage didn’t result in Pixies) and a 9 year old girl who is an intense, bespectacled reader with hair like Rapunzel. I think that should you and your gorgeous girls ever find yourselves in Wellington, New Zealand we should get together for an all the bananas you can eat party.

  • Jennifer Campisano

    2014/09/16 at 6:32 pm

    Beautiful. When my son started a new preschool last fall, I wrote this ( about his separation anxiety and my response. I hope I get to watch him start kindergarten. Thank you for the advice for when that happens. Also, this post makes me want to take way more photos. My boy doesn’t love the camera and is ALWAYS moving, so it’s tough, but your pictures are inspiring.

  • kp

    2014/09/16 at 7:33 pm

    Yes! I was going to mention The Kissing Hand! My son loves it!

  • Teal

    2014/09/16 at 7:51 pm

    “We are with you always.” Gahh! Dammit, Heather don’t do that to me! I instantly teared up at that.

    I feel so much for Marlo, because I dealt with the same thing. Severe separation anxiety caused me a lot of pain in my youth. Back in the stone age of the late 80’s & 90’s, kids that had that issue were just considered neurotic babies. Thank you for taking her worries seriously. When she is grown up, she will always remember that you were there for her, and that is more precious than you or her probably realize.

  • hugsNpuppies

    2014/09/16 at 8:48 pm

    Probably not, but that’s what Cesar Millan is for. Go have a look at his blog 🙂

  • linmac

    2014/09/16 at 9:33 pm

    oh… that is achingly brilliant. My eldest is nearly a teenager, and we clash so much (we are SO alike). I think this kind of thinking can be applied to teens as well. It’s so easy to get caught up in the head-to-head drama. I need to step back and remind her (and me) that I’m here for her always. Thank you for this!

  • Luis Felipe Morales Knight

    2014/09/16 at 11:39 pm

    I’m a clinical child psychologist and I am so stealing that chair trick. Thanks for that!

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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