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Why I won't be crying over my son's first day of school

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An Artarmon mum of two boys (aged five and two years), shares her difficult journey in getting her eldest son ready for his first day of school.

Tomorrow, my first born Tom, almost six, starts school. I don’t think I will cry, and I am certain he will not. I have been trying to understand the nostalgia that other mums experience when this time comes and why so often they breakdown at this milestone. If I do find myself reaching for the tissues, I want to know why.

The path we travelled to get here has been windy. Tom didn’t develop in a straight line and it has not all been smooth sailing. He was a week overdue and yanked into the world with the assistance of drugs and forceps. He didn’t sleep through the night for the first two years of his life. I had terrible trouble breastfeeding him, but wouldn’t give up, lest it reflect upon my failure as a mother. It took about three months of agony and sleep deprivation to work it out. I remember breaking down at the feeding clinic and a doctor pulling me aside and saying, ‘it is going to be ok’. Of course, she was right, but I can honestly say those early months were among the most challenging in my life. At that time, we had no family support, living interstate.

I was working from the time he was six months in a demanding role and our family was sick constantly during the first year of his life. I did not experience a clear two weeks of good health between the ages of six to 12 months. Recurrent chest infections, gastroenteritis, sinusitis, you name it.

We moved back to Sydney when he was about 18 months old, as my sister had returned from overseas with her young family. He was growing into a gorgeous-looking kid (objectively) and things were going well (though he still didn’t sleep through the night).

At about the age of 2.5 years, we started getting a sniff that our little boy wasn’t developing in the same way as ‘the other kids’. His speech was different; hard to understand. Sometimes it was like he didn’t hear us. I would repeat myself again and again, ‘are you cold, do you need a jumper?’. No response.

He had a terrible temper. But not like other kids. One day I turned up at day care to be told that he had thrown a sizeable rock at another child, and was told it ‘could have killed him’. He was caught arm back poised to throw. The carer explained, puzzled: ‘I yelled at him, STOP. But he threw it anyway… I have never experienced a kid throw it anyway in all my years of teaching. He is different.’

It was embarrassing. He would throw sand in the eyes of other children in parks, position himself at the bottom of the slippery slide so a line of children could not get down, he struggled to make friends. He wouldn’t go to bed and was up all night.

A hearing, speech and occupational therapy test ensued. Plus a behavioural phycologist assessment. Then therapy, parenting courses … and worry. And more worry. Nothing was ‘wrong’ with Tom, or at least he was too young to receive a diagnosis. Could it be autism, an oppositional disorder or attention deficit? We don’t think so … yet.

At 3.5 years, I would drive Tom to his day care and he would scream the whole way there. I would arrive to receive another report of bad behaviour, with all the problems laid out bare, without a solution in sight.

Surely, if I just read some books, followed some formulas, ticked some boxes, worked hard and harder, it would all come good? There was nothing I couldn’t overcome in the other parts of my world, be it personal or professional.

Our relationship with the day care broke down when my younger son John attended for the first time and contracted viral meningitis (confirmed from another child). Thankfully, he pulled through and the experience gave me the courage to take the bold step of removing both from day care and hiring a nanny for John when I returned to work, with Tom attending a community-run preschool three days a week.

We formed a wonderful relationship with the carers at the preschool, who saw the good in Tom, at the same time working through the rest of the issues. They never judged me or him, providing him with a beautiful environment to grow. And that is exactly what he needed. With a birthday in February, the advice was firm but clear: ‘hold him back’ and ‘he will be a different kid in a year’.

Over the last year we have come through the woods. Tom was discharged from speech therapy and he went through the community-run school starters Occupational Therapy program with flying colours.

Watching him play with his brother on the slide today at the park, I remembered not that long ago the different scene of needing to pull him off the equipment, screaming, as parents looked on.

He loves his books, knows all his letters, can count to 100 and can write his name. I can trust him not to run onto the road and he is getting better at playing with other kids. He is still good looking.

God knows he is not perfect, but he is my boy and he is ready for school.

So when I drop Tom off tomorrow, if I do cry, it will not be with nostalgia, but with utter relief. That we got him here, or he got himself here. If I do cry I will cry because of where we have been, not because of where he is heading. The best yet to come.

More on starting school…

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