It’s nine o’clock AM, and I am sitting outside my daughter’s first grade classroom with my laptop open and my heart a little nervous. The school, built decades ago, isn’t setup like most. The classrooms open up to a central library. And while you might think that noise or distractions would prevent little minds from being able to focus, this is one of those buildings constructed in such a way that the sound bounces and each room stays somewhat quiet. I don’t understand it either, and I’m sitting here.
From where I sit, I can see my daughter’s little back pulled up to a tiny desk, working on tracing letters. Every few minutes, she peeks over her shoulder just to make sure I haven’t left. And I won’t. I promised I would stay all day.
So why am I sitting here? Why will I sit outside my daughter’s classroom for the rest of the day? The short answer is… this is what’s best for my child.
The long answer would require me to take you back about four years. This story isn’t everything, but it is everything you need to know to understand how we both got here today.
Before I jump in though, I want you to know this. I am not writing this article to change your mind or make you believe that what I am doing is right for our family. As the parent of my child for the last six years, I know more about my daughter than I could ever hope for someone else to understand. I couldn’t condense her life enough to explain everything that brought us to this moment. So, I’m not trying to convince you that this is what is best for us. I decided that a long time ago.
I am offering our story for the parents who need it. I am sharing my story so that maybe you will be more confident in yours. I am writing this for the caregiver who needs to know they aren’t alone. You will know who you are.
All of that being said, this article is long – much longer than most of my writings. To be honest, this is nearly a book chapter in length, but for some reason… for this story… it all needs to be said.
Four years ago, we discovered that my daughter, my second born, is allergic to peanuts. Looking for a substitute food for her older brother, who basically lived on peanut butter sandwiches at the time, we decided to try cashew butter one afternoon.
I handed him a small square of bread with less than dime sized amount of cashew butter spread thinly across it, and I turned around to walk toward the kitchen sink. I had made it two steps when he began to sneeze and choke.
I spun around. His face was bright red, and he couldn’t catch his breath. He sneezed another half dozen times as I grabbed my car keys, scooped up my daughter, and raced them both to the ER.
My son was three. My daughter was two. And this was our first experience with anaphylaxis.
That afternoon ended with the best possible outcome, considering the circumstances. My son was given epinephrine and steroids, and we were able to save him. But save him is the right choice of words, because the afternoon could have ended much, much differently.
My daughter was there for all of it, and even though she was very young, that was the day the anxiety found a door into her heart. (I have found that trauma will use any door.)
She watched her brother struggle to breathe. She watched the doctors race to save him. She heard about the shots, and she heard about the danger, and that was the day she became truly afraid of food.
You might suppose that it would make more sense for my son to become afraid. After all, it had happened to him, but I don’t suppose fear cares who it scares. Our Enemy will take any ground he can get.
That experience taught my daughter that some foods make very scary things happen. She didn’t understand which foods and she didn’t understand why, but eating became dangerous and being away from me felt very unsafe.
Over the next few years, my daughter set up boundaries to help herself function. She would let me know what she did and didn’t feel comfortable eating, and I understood that it was more than pickiness. It was self-defense.
I wish that I could say I helped her in the beginning the way that she needed me to. I wish that I could say I supported all of her boundaries, but I was always trying to help her expand her borders. I was always doing my best to help her distinguish between rational and irrational fears, and sometimes I pushed a little. But I didn’t understand then what I do now.
Last year, I enrolled my daughter in full day kindergarten. Lunch would be served, but I would send her only what she felt safe eating. There would be snacks served as well, but none with the allergens potentially deadly to her.
I did my best to create an environment where she could thrive. But thrive doesn’t even remotely describe what took place last year.
After the initial fear of leaving me and the tears shed at the beginning of every day, she seemed fine. Her teacher told me that she would participate and appeared generally happy all day long.
But afternoons were a different story. She would have panic attacks and uncharacteristic anger. She couldn’t calm down. She couldn’t listen. She was just so mad and easily triggered. (This was even after we had removed the artificial colors from her diet.)
We couldn’t figure it out. What were we doing wrong?
One afternoon in the middle of a fit about something that didn’t even make any sense, she collapsed into my arms and cried, “Momma, I’m just so scared all of the time!”
And I could finally see it. I realized that she was so tense all day. She was so afraid that someone would touch her after they had eaten something she was allergic to. She was afraid to be near her friends. She was afraid that just picking up the wrong crayon after another student used it would cause her to have an allergic reaction.
It was too much for her little heart to manage 20 other children and what they had and hadn’t touched all day.
She could hold it together, but home was a safe place to fall apart. As it turns out, her breakdown was actually the breakthrough we needed. We understood her behavior wasn’t defiance or typical separation anxiety or anything else. It was fear… a deeply rooted fear that this praying momma had done everything she could to overcome.
I feel like it is important that I share this. I’m a Christian woman, and I struggle (and have struggled) with anxiety for most of my life. We can trace mine back to childhood as well. Recently, I discovered that a genetic disorder and vitamin deficiency were the root cause of my anxiety. You can read more about that here if you’d like. But this story is about my daughter… and how we both ended up in first grade today.
The afternoon that my daugther broke down, and we realized that school was the cause of her misbehavior, I began to work to find another answer for her. Of course, from the outside she seemed like a typical kindergartener who just didn’t want mom to leave at the beginning of the day. No one saw what we experienced at home. It was hard to share my heart with those in authority, because honestly… there was so much that you couldn’t understand unless you were there.
It was hard to explain what we were going through to other parents whose children could easily do something like go to school.
I decided to meet with the her teacher and the school principal. We worked out that she would just go for a few hours a day and then come home to finish her work. But a few months later when we weren’t noticing much difference in her behavior, we made the decision to homeschool. It was a powerful moment when I realized that my daughter’s schooling didn’t have to look like everyone else’s. When I was able to let go of what I had imagined for her and allow her to experience what she needed.
Homeschooling was the best thing for her. She needed that semester and summer at home. She thrived. She expanded her boundaries on her own. She grew emotionally and in her understanding of what situations were and weren’t dangerous. She went to sleepovers at trusted friend’s houses. She went to her church class alone. She was brave again and again.
But I could tell as the summer came to a close that the idea of returning to school carried two different emotions for her. She felt safe at home, but she missed her friends and she missed learning with peers. And anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety knows that sometimes the hardest moments are those when we really wish we could be a little braver… when we wish it was as easy for us as it is for everyone else.
School started in our district last Thursday. I woke up my kids and helped them put on their first day of school outfits. We had breakfast. We took photos on the front porch. And then we drove my son to the school. As we walked him inside, my daughter saw all of her friends. She saw former classmates. She saw our neighbor excitedly going into her new class. And I could tell that my daughter was sad.
“I wish I felt brave enough to go,” she told me on the way home.
I wished she did too.
Her first day of homeschool this year didn’t carry the same relief as it did last year. There was a bit of sadness that surrounded it. We reviewed math facts and read a few books. We went online and printed our yearly assessment tests to make sure that the books I had ordered would be the ones she needed. But something in me wondered if she would end up using those books at all. I still wonder.
As we worked through her papers, I had an idea. (One I probably should have thought through before I announced out loud.)
“Sister? What if I went to first grade, too?” I offered.
“You’d go with me all day?” she asked.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how this would work. I definitely didn’t have the permission of the principal to come to first grade… But I know that students who have other educational challenges are often allowed certain help. Perhaps, my daughter would be granted a special allowance? It couldn’t hurt to ask.
Friday afternoon when we went to pick up my son from school, we ran into one of the first-grade teachers. This teacher taught my son last year, and my daughter was able to get to know her a bit as well. She asked how homeschooling was going, and I told her how I had ordered our books for the year and were just waiting for them to come in.
And then I told her how my daughter was thinking about coming back to school. The events that unfolded next don’t make a lot of sense, except to say they were a direct result of prayer.
That kind woman said that she would love to have my daughter in her class if she decided to come back. She knew her story and would help in any way she could. We asked my daughter if she wanted to look around her potential new classroom, and she agreed.
We found where her desk would be. We learned what her day would look like. And we decided that momma would come with her on Monday if she felt brave enough to start the first grade.
And, wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened. This morning, my daughter walked bravely into her new class. She greeted her classmates. She has done her work. So far, she has had a wonderful day.
I don’t know how long I’ll sit here. I don’t know if it will take the rest of the week or just the next day or so. Honestly, I don’t even know if we will be back tomorrow. I won’t be able to see what the days ahead look like until they come.
But I can say this, I am not afraid of finding what works for my kid. I am not afraid of asking for help or special allowances. I am not afraid of what the other parents think of me. I’m not afraid to say tomorrow that this wasn’t the answer.
Her father and I are her only advocates. It is up to us to find what works if the boxes do not. It is up to us to help our child succeed by giving her the tools to do so, even if they don’t look like anyone else’s. Two of her best resources are parents who are not afraid to try new things and admit when certain things don’t work.
So here I sit outside of her classroom. The day is almost over. I’ve taken a few breaks from writing. (I had to go to PE and lunch and recess after all.)
But this is what I hope you take from our story.
You may not have a child who suffers from anxiety (or maybe you do). You may not have a child who needs special arrangements in school (or perhaps you do). You may not have related to one part of what I have shared.
But this is true for all of us… We each parent very individual children – children who will grow up to be very individual adults. And you know them better than anyone else. You know their full story. You know their real story.
And the best thing you can do as a parent is boldly support them as the Lord unfolds that story, unafraid if it looks different than you imagined or different from anyone else’s.
Teachers or family or friends might not always understand. They might not always support you. They might not ever fully get it.
But bravery isn’t just an act of doing a scary thing easily.
Maybe the braver person is the one who does the scary thing even when it isn’t easy.
And being a parent is rarely easy. Friend, that means we are braver than we know.
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