the smell of my desperation has become a stench

A literal and metaphorical breakthrough

Marlo’s anxiety has shown a ton of improvement during the school day since we assembled the notebook of photos for her to keep in her backpack, but her drop offs have continued to be a little rough. Okay, very rough. I thought we were making progress because she wasn’t crying the entire time she was hanging up her backpack and coat, but then one day she planted her feet outside the room, stiffened her entire body and said through trembling lips, “I am going to stand here forever.”

And she was serious.

One morning a couple of weeks ago a fellow parent whose son is in Marlo’s class noticed that she was having a difficult time letting go of my neck. I’d squatted down to give her one last hug when she transformed into an octopus, wrapped every limb around my body and nearly choked me to death. I compare Marlo to an octopus quite often, usually when I’m trying to describe what it feels like whenever she’s sitting in my lap: imagine that an octopus has you in a headlock with three of its tentacles and is using the rest to tap dance on your thighs. That.

After Marlo tearfully entered the room that mother, a woman named Kelsey, approached me and touched me gently on the arm.

“I hope you don’t mind… I noticed that Marlo sometimes has a hard time going into class and my son has experienced the same difficulty with this transition,” she said not knowing that I very much wanted to hug her and then request that she cradle me like a baby and carry me home.

“Oh, yeah?” I responded, so full of relief that someone could empathize. “Has any technique really worked for him?”

“Well, some days are good and some days are bad. But he’s really great with assignments, and I was thinking that maybe he could help. Maybe they could help each other.”

We swapped numbers and set up a play date between Marlo and her son Jonah to gauge how well they’d get along, and after nearly two hours of running and hiding and gleeful screaming we felt more than confident that the two of them were a good match. The following morning we decided to meet up early outside the classroom to let them run around, hoping that it might distract Marlo from the anxiety she feels about going inside.

Keep in mind that I show up early every morning hoping that she’ll let go of my body, grab a fellow classmate and run in circles like almost every other kid is doing. But she has refused to do so. She has clung to my leg or my neck and buried her head next to mine every single morning. That is, up until that morning with Jonah. For the first time this year I stood there feeling somewhat naked having no octopus draped across my torso. It was so incredibly disorienting. I really did feel physically exposed, like I should hurry up and hide my boobs.

Yeah, I know. I’m a “would hide my boobs first” kind of person. If you’d hide your crotch first, that’s fine, we can still hang out together. But I can’t promise you that my brain won’t involuntarily analyze your areolae.

Marlo and Jonah have played together every morning since then, and by day three of this partnership Marlo was going into the classroom with a little hesitation, but without any crying or protestation. I’d look at Kelsey and mouth the words, “IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?” And she’d give me the thumbs up. And then I’d moonwalk, spin in a circle and jump into splits. Don’t worry, I only pulled two muscles. It only hurts a little bit when I walk or sit or breathe.


And then this morning… from the moment we got out of the car she ran four steps ahead of me to chase a whole group of kids. She jumped and laughed and told jokes in funny voices, and when the bell rang, a sound that usually pierces straight through my gut because it signals the inevitable heartbreaking scene of my child in the throes of grief, she walked over to me, kissed me on the cheek and then sprinted into the classroom. Without looking back.

This time my arms shot spontaneously over my head and I started jogging in place. Very much like this:

I know regard Jonah as The Magical Miracle Worker. His friendship helped her feel safe, helped her gather the courage to physically and metaphorically cross that threshold. I am now so indebted to Kelsey’s small act of generosity. I can’t thank her enough for touching me on the arm that morning and offering her support. I have too often wanted to do the same for someone else but held back because I didn’t want another mother to think that I was being judgmental, and Kelsey has shown me that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs that risk.

  • Tara Cain

    2014/10/06 at 2:17 pm

    I think this is one of the hardest you face in parenthood. You’re convinced you’re the only one and that you’re being watched and judged and why oh WHY doesn’t my child skip into class like all the others.
    Everyone needs a Kelsey 🙂

  • Julia

    2014/10/06 at 2:29 pm

    Glad it worked out. I’m a teacher and the first few weeks are just hard for some kiddos. If the buddy system stops working, I’d suggest finding someone else to do the drop off and see if that helps. I’ve noticed that kids will often scream their head off for mom, but happily wave and walk away from dad or a babysitter. A few scream-free days usually does the trick and they stop pitching a fit for mom.

  • Jill Mansfield

    2014/10/06 at 2:57 pm

    I went through this several years ago with my youngest. It’s been 8+ years and yet reading this, I felt every bit of the despair you feel as a parent when you really don’t know what else to do to help your child. I wish I would’ve had a Kelsey.

  • Carin Sweerman

    2014/10/06 at 3:03 pm

    Nice. I wish people would be less anxious about reaching out towards another person when they think they might have something to share or with an offer to help. And I also wish that people were more accepting when those rare individuals, such as Kelsey, do reach out, that they’re accepted and not rebuffed, as you did when you asked “Yeah? Any technique you care to share?” Very cool – even though I have no children, I loved reading this post. Goes to show we can still be a village.

  • Preeti

    2014/10/06 at 3:32 pm

    My son cried for a whole month when he started preschool . Finally his teacher suggested that I have someone other than me drop him so we could say our goodbye at home.
    This worked really well but I still could not drop him off for the next 6 months 🙁

  • Samantha

    2014/10/06 at 4:53 pm

    This is exactly what worked for us this year (1st grade). She cried the first week (getting progressively worse) until her daddy started doing drop off. No more crying. After a couple weeks of that we tried again with me doing drop off. No crying.

  • Elizabeth Beattie

    2014/10/06 at 4:53 pm

    So amazing!!! My daughters went through the same thing. Having a connection with kids and a little play time right before class worked for them as well. So glad it worked for you too!!! Way to go Marlo!!!

  • Katybeth

    2014/10/06 at 4:56 pm

    Kelsey reached out to be helpful and you reached back to accept. Parenting teamwork at its finest. Applauding your happy drop-off dance.

  • Kim's Kitchen Sink

    2014/10/06 at 5:25 pm

    This is so wonderful – the human connection of finding someone with a shared experience (whether that’s Kelsey with you or Jonah with Marlo) is vital. So rad.

  • KimberlyDi

    2014/10/06 at 5:29 pm

    This was so touching. We need to reach out to one another. Our compassion from being human shouldn’t be wasted. We need more villages, supporting one another, we’ve lost that crucial strength.

  • joanlvh

    2014/10/06 at 8:25 pm

    what a great idea, hooray for Kelsey!

  • anonymous

    2014/10/06 at 11:15 pm

    Her dad can’t drop her off in the morning because Jon doesn’t live in Utah. He lives here in Brooklyn.

  • Edek

    2014/10/07 at 3:57 am


  • Jessica

    2014/10/07 at 6:04 am

    Bets on Marlo and Jonah getting married in 20 years? Such a meet-cute. 🙂

  • Mel

    2014/10/07 at 6:44 am

    That’s great! I’m really glad you found something that worked for her. 🙂

    I know a little something about school anxiety. Well, more then a little. Mine never entirely went away. Over time I found coping techniques that helped, which you might want to add to your arsenal in case you need them – laughter and body posture change.

    When she’s in the midst of a full on “I’m not going to do it, you can’t make me, and by the way I think I am getting sick…” moment ask her to tell you a joke, or ask her to tell you about the hilarious thing Coco did recently. Get her giggling about something. It’s both a distraction, and reduces stress, thus limiting the stress association to the place or situation.

    Next, change her body posture. Laughter may naturally cause her to change her posture, but if not ask her to play a mirror game. See if she can mimic you and smile, jump, wave your arms. Sit/stand up straight. Shake out your shoulders and arms like you are getting rid of tension. Make a funny face. Raise your arms in the air in triumph. Positive and powerful physical positioning make us feel more positive and powerful. Ditto with relaxed postures.

    Doing things like the above worked wonders for me. Wouldn’t have made it through school without them.

  • Marissa

    2014/10/07 at 6:54 am

    So glad this is working out for you and Marlo. This story of moms helping each other is fantastic and we need much much more of this.

  • Stephanie Reidy

    2014/10/07 at 8:07 am

    Yay for Kelsey and Jonah!! I love parents helping out other parents in times of need.
    Once, when I was arriving home from from a business trip, offered to help a woman with her baby as she was deplaning because she had her hands full with a toddler and all of their carry-on. We got to chatting as we waited for their luggage and it turned out that she was newly moving to the city and was going to be working at the same firm as my soon to be husband. That was 10 years ago and she still raves to everyone about how “wonderful” I am and what a lucky man he is to have me. Because of her, I’m one of the most popular spouses at the firm. A small offer of kindness can have a huge ripple effect!

  • Beth Rich

    2014/10/07 at 8:28 am

    The universe sends us Kelseys so that we all have the courage to raise kids. Really happy that y’all found a solution for Marlo.

  • Jen Moore

    2014/10/07 at 10:46 am

    Friends are the BEST!

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/10/07 at 11:52 am

    Yep, I’m all teary…

  • Samantha

    2014/10/07 at 12:16 pm

    There’s a typo in your latest post, just letting you know. I am sure you can find it.

  • Moody

    2014/10/07 at 4:23 pm

    Really? You have to be THAT person?

  • Robyn

    2014/10/07 at 4:42 pm

    I recently heard the advice, “Never suppress a generous thought”, which extends to actions as well. It was a lightning bolt for me, as I am naturally inclined not to interfere or put myself out there. But I realized that if the impulse comes from true generosity of spirit, odds are people will understand and appreciate that. Kelsey is a great example of how living by that credo can make the world a better place.

  • Tiffany

    2014/10/07 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing these. My 5 year old is having a lot of difficulty transitioning into Kindergarten, which I’m struggling to help him with because he’s never had this kind of problem before. He has friends in class, he just seems to not want to go (the playing before time on the playground thing isn’t working for us unfortunately). But if I can get him to laugh that usually eases the tears at least. These are good suggestions. I’ll put them to use when he goes back next week!

  • Lee

    2014/10/08 at 7:04 am

    My father’s school anxiety never went away, either. He taught until he was 75, and at 87, he still has nightmares the week before classes start, even though he doesn’t teach anymore.

  • Thrift Store Mama

    2014/10/08 at 10:15 pm

    One of my children had a really hard time with dropoff through kindergarten and still does (in 2nd grade) if the routine changes. We figured out something that works for her and I’m so glad for you and Marlo that you figured out something that works for her.

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.

read more