Parenting by the Books: Kindergarten

On Being Small, Lonely, and Overwhelmed

Image: MIKI Yoshihito

When my children were babies, I loved, and often reread, a short poem by Anne Winters, titled “Elizabeth, Near and Far,” that ends with these lines:

You place your hands on air; push, croon, turn,
all softly, all alone (my head half-in the door)
and stroke the wall and murmur in the still-
shaded room, and are alone with yourself.

That last line! It describes what I took to be a big part of my job as a mother of babies: helping them learn how to be alone and — more — how to take pleasure in being alone. The poem makes that quiet time spent with the self seem so beautiful, particularly because it is canny about the mother’s parenthetical presence in the scenario (“my head half-in the door”).

The ultra-focused vision of baby parenting didn’t always allow me to see my own presence. I often thought I was watching my child be sweetly alone; I have a series of pictures taken from behind as they sat and played with some toy or other, their delicious neck and shoulders exposed to my admiration as they focused. But this was not actually being alone; this was being alone while knowing your mom is behind you, or sensing that her head is half in the door.

Not so romantic a vision of being alone with yourself? Kindergarten. If I could, I’d like to collar every single person who has ever had children and force them to be fucking honest and real for once about how: 1) vacations with small children are a nightmare, 2) breastfeeding is a sham, and 3) KINDERGARTEN.

I don’t even have a verb/object to follow “KINDERGARTEN” because really, just, KINDERGARTEN. It’s been a wild year, wonderful in so many mays: reading, teachers, institutionalization (like, whoa), independence, new friends, jokes and songs. No more naps, no more strollers, a family gradually moving toward a group of individuals rather than a set of hosts and epiphytes. But kindergarten has also been things like this, from a recent morning:

“What do you do during recess?”
“Sometimes I just walk around and don’t do anything.”
“Oh” (to self: keep your shit together, keep your shit together), “Do you ever have company or a friend to walk with?”
“No, mostly I do it by myself.”

All alone. You are alone with yourself. Romantic, tender, and also, terrifying.

It’s all familiar though, right? Being a kid is often pretty lonely. I mean, I guess being a human is pretty lonely. Literature doesn’t exactly repair or assuage these feelings of loneliness, but it does give them a shape, which can help us understand them. It’s strange to say, but lately when I’ve been worrying about my child out in the world alone, I’ve been thinking a lot about some weirdos from turn-of-the-century realist literature.

Characters in these novels are buffeted by the world. They are out there trying every day, putting themselves in the way of others, negotiating social complexities, being rebuffed as often as they are loved. It’s heartbreak city! Consider, for example, the story of social misfit Silas Lapham, the main character in William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). The novel features a complicated late-nineteenth-century plot of romance, business, rise and fall, and new/old money conflict. One of the central scenes that weaves all these themes together is a dinner party: Lapham is a new-money businessman who has been invited to a dinner party at the home of the old-money family into which he hopes his daughter will marry. The gut-punch crux of the emotional/social issue here is that Silas Lapham wears ridiculous gloves to the party. Lapham fusses and worries over the subject of the gloves — what should they look like, at what point during the sociable evening do the gloves come off and/or go back on? Do men even still wear them to dinner? His daughter Irene vaguely remembers hearing that gentlemen no longer, really, do. Lapham goes to the shops, buys an etiquette book which fails to address his question, tries (and fails) to casually bring up the subject of gloves with his daughter’s rich boyfriend, and finally just buys a pair from a shop-girl and hopes for the best.

The evening arrives, and Silas dresses for dinner, jamming his hands into the gloves he ultimately purchased: “When he had them on, and let his large fists hang down on either side, they looked, in the saffron tint which the shop-girl said his gloves should be of, like canvased hams.” All his social worrying and work was for naught, he looks ridiculous and everyone at the dinner notices. He’s exposed and on his own. The disastrous evening unfolds from there.

Or consider Theron Ware, the earnest small-town reverend “hero” of Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), who falls in with a fashionable group (a Darwinian scientist, a Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in God, and a flaming red-haired female louche named Celia) and longs to be accepted by them. In conversation with the beautiful Celia, Ware decides to deliver his opinions on a wonderful musician he’s become familiar with named “Shopang.” The gaffe is intensified precisely because neither she, nor the narrator remark directly on it, other than the “latent grin” she gives him after he utters the mispronunciation. We are all gathered around the novel, witness to someone making a “beyond” kind of social mistake.

And, of course, Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), perhaps the loneliest of turn-of-the-century American realism/naturalism. In my mind’s eye, she is always framed — architecturally, or scenically, or morally — and I am almost always looking at her from afar. The reader is never beside her or with her. The other characters in the novel are never with her. For that matter, Lily is rarely fully with herself; she’s always rushing to a mirror to check the status of her looks, her only true financial and social asset. She’s like the inverse of the baby in Winters’s poem; no soft and satisfying murmuring keeping herself company, only a small creature, lonely and darting and exposed.

These examples are of course more complicated than I’ve made them seem. They aren’t just about being alone, they feature characters navigating various combinations of class, gender, desire, and more. But what these characters have in common, I think, is their exposure. They are all like turtles out of their shells, pulp without armor, they deliver to us the full force of collision between a self that is fundamentally alone and the social world that can both comfort and hurt. If I say this is a little bit of what kindergarten is like, I don’t do it to alarm you. I just do it because it’s true.

I’ve arranged my life, and my children’s lives, so that we are mostly surrounded by bookish people: people who often felt (or still feel) out of step with various forms of sociability. We are particularly the types who romanticize the loneliness of childhood, whether to assuage old hurts or affirm our current sense of the full emotional and intellectual lives that we’ve gleaned from that loneliness. And, it’s true: I do think that people who know how to be alone, and out-of-step, are more interesting people, for a longer span of time in their lives. So I realize that it’s odd for me to feel panic when my kid talks about spending time alone at school. On any objective scale, there’s no measurement by which I want to conclude this is alarming or bad.

I love spending time alone. I am happy with my own company, delight in the infinite material facts of being a single organism floating through the world: a warm shower, a weirdly satisfying lunch alone, the right position found for an afternoon of reading, thinking my own thoughts while walking by myself. The other day, we reached an important milestone in our house: annoyed at something I was prohibiting, my five-year-old shouted, “You never let me do anything I want to do. I’m going to my room!” And he went! He spent ten minutes alone doing whatever and then returned to us. It was great, and important and probably what I was romantically envisioning as my parenting duty while reading that poem in his babyhood, with a dash of narcissistic “all the best people want to be left alone in their rooms with a book.”

But for every restorative experience of being alone, my kids will have more than enough exposed moments where they feel lonely, small, and overwhelmed. I still haven’t sorted out exactly why five has been such a turning point year in my own thinking and feeling about my kid’s life as an individual navigating a tough world. Is it because the minute the stresses of toddler/preschool manual labor eased up and the sucking void their absence left immediately elicited a max amount of emotional and social anxiety in me? Probably! That, or maybe just five-year-olds are kind of a trip.

On the very same day my five-year-old told me that lonely recess story and was small and soft and emo and crustacean-seeming, he came home seven hours later, and burst in chattering about his field trip tomorrow, and how daddy said he could practice riding his bike on the sidewalk for a bit before dinner, and he wanted to have a playdate with so and so, and, and, and, and. Push, croon, turn: alone with himself, and also in love with others, and the small pleasures of the world. This is literally the most whiplash kindergarten thing to have ever happened. So, in conclusion: KINDER-FUCKING-GARTEN, you guys.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.