Thursday, September 14, 2006

Empty Nest Syndrome Phase One (a.k.a. Gwen gets [part of] her life back)

Ava started school this week. We had her in a nursery school program at a local church three days a week last year, essentially two hours of supervised and organized play. This year she’s in a three-year-old program, five days a week, at the same facility where Madison is doing her kindergarten enrichment.

So, for the first time since Madison was born more than five years ago, there are now at least a few hours every day during which both of our children are occupied and accounted for and absent from us. At this point the overlap of their school programs runs from about 9:30 a.m. through shortly after noon, a period I've informally dubbed Gwen's "window of liberation." It also puts us - particularly Gwen - on the brink of a syndrome so effectively articulated by Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate," with just five great words and a blank stare, right after his character had won election to the U.S. Senate: "What do we do now?"

Ava's orientation was on Tuesday, Gwen went with her, and in addition to enjoying it the reports were that she shined. She wrote her name without help, unique among her fellow students, and she used crayons to draw a picture she described to me that night as, “me and my Daddy walking to buy ice cream for everyone in my class.”

Her first "real" day was Wednesday, and some of the emotions I expected to kick in when Madison started kindergarten last week came rolling through with Ava. I don’t know why, there was something about seeing those tiny shoulders enveloped in an enormous purple backpack walking out of our house that got to me.


She’s also our baby, and the thought of her being away from home, away from us, as part of an every-day organized program is a great and positive development that still manages to feel troubling and actually a little sad.

She loves it though, just like Madison, so upward and onward.

Speaking of Madison, I put a little system in place earlier this week in an attempt to avoid falling into the following stereotypical end-of-the-day parent-child dialogue:

[FADE IN]

PARENT: “How was your day?”

CHILD: “Good.”

PARENT: “Good."

[FADE OUT]

I told Madison that when I saw her at night I wanted her to tell me at least one thing she did during her day at school. She was receptive to this. I got home late last night and missed her before she went to bed, so she gave me the first report this morning.

“Daddy, this is bad, I’m not sure I should tell you, it’s really bad.”

“What Madison? What happened?”

“So far we have not spent one minute in school learning how to read. Not one.”

I counseled that it was still very early in the academic year and I was sure her teachers would eventually get around to reading, but as a hedge we’re more focused than ever on helping her find her way through early reading books before bed. College essays loom, and Madison is already concerned she's behind the curve.

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