She could notice that her teacher has a mole and, in a minor faux pas, comment on it. But she could also mix up the word mole with the word nipple, as she has done for her entire life, and announce that her teacher has a nipple on her face. And the children could laugh at her.
She could get challenged to a race at recess and realize for the first time that she is not, in fact, the fastest kid in the world, even though she has convinced herself of this. She could learn that she is actually among the slowest.
She could trip and fall.
She could be her usual picky self and refuse to eat anything from the lunch line except for an apple and the bun off of a sandwich, and find herself shaking with hunger by the end of the day.
She could get nervous and spend the whole time talking about something her peers don’t care about, like Doctor Who or bugs or her favorite cousin.
She could use the word “fatuous” correctly and the other kids could think she’s a know-it-all. They could think she was calling someone fat.
She could be the victim of that mean little girl from Vacation Bible School who bosses her around and makes her feel bad about herself.
She could be so tired that she falls asleep on the bus on the way home and misses her stop.
She could get bumped into and knock her head on the corner of a cabinet and shriek and feel the pang of embarrassment that I have watched take over her body so many times before, but at school she has no door to hide behind, no mother to say, “I’ll hug you when you’re ready,” no stuffed giraffe to snuggle.
She could, like her mother before her, not realize she is singing and be told to hush by the teacher.
She could overhear a classmate call someone fat and, for the first time in her life, realize that there are people in the world who use that word as an insult.
She could be told by a fifth grader on the bus what a blow job is when she doesn’t even know what sex is.
She could be judged and criticized and ridiculed.
She could be shot by a gunman bent on destroying innocent lives.
My therapist, who believes in cognitive behavioral therapy, says that to overcome the anxious thoughts that crowd my mind, I should challenge the faulty beliefs that lead to the disordered thinking. What is the belief here? Am I really afraid that my daughter will be killed by a psychopath who breaks into her school? No, I feel safe because of the statistics that are on my side. Do I think that everything that can go wrong will go wrong? No, I think she will probably be fine.
Why do I fear my daughter’s first days in kindergarten? What do I believe that makes me so afraid?
I believe that she is like me.
She looks like me, talks like me, has my sweet tooth. She struggles to gain strength like I do, and she can’t keep up physically with her peers, just as I never kept up with mine. She often gets distracted and overwhelmed. She is irritable. She thrives on stories, just like I did. She is smart, like I was. She is argumentative and opinionated like me, and she knows that everything she feels is justified and right.
If she is like me in all of these other ways, then why shouldn’t I assume that she has also inherited my anxiety? My overpowering sense of shame and humiliation? My earliest shame-filled moments start in early elementary school, when I was alone in the world for the first time. Humming a tune and being told to quiet down. Reading the word “pee” out loud instead of the correct word, “peel.” Everyone laughing. Falling asleep during a standardized test and copying off of my neighbor’s work, terrified that I would be found out. Cheating during the running part of gym class and feeling so guilty that I couldn’t sleep. Not understanding what my first-grade teacher meant when she rolled her eyes and said, “It’s not brain surgery!” Getting stuck in the tractor tire on the playground and needing two teachers to help me escape. Being alone.
How do I help my daughter? How do I protect her from lying awake at night, replaying the day in her mind, thinking about all of the things she should have said or done differently? If my parents, who loved me and cared about me and paid attention to the things I said and did couldn’t help me, then how can I help her?
I was 32 before I entered therapy for anxiety. My husband told me I needed to go, even though I thought my brain was normal. It’s not normal, he said, that every roll of thunder makes you think your children are going to die. It’s not normal to twitch at night when some embarrassing moment from a decade ago leaps into your brain, and you must dislodge it with a physical shudder.
I believe my daughter is like me, and so I fear kindergarten, because kindergarten is where I can trace my own anxiety to its roots. And this is despite the fact that I loved kindergarten, loved my classmates, loved my family, loved my teacher, loved my life.
I was a happy child at the same time as I was an anxious one. My girl is happy. What if she is anxiety-ridden, like me?
My therapist suggests action plans: What will you do if what you fear comes true?
If she falls asleep on the bus, the bus driver will call me.
If the other girls are mean to her, I’ll talk with the teacher.
If she hears about sex too early, her dad and I will talk with her.
What if my girl develops my anxiety? I will tell her I love her no matter what. I will tell her that she is capable, smart and strong. I will tell her how proud I am of her.
I will teach her the things I’ve been learning in therapy about managing anxiety and unwarranted shame. If I need to, I’ll get her into therapy herself.
I will use what I know about the way my brain worked as a child to let her know that her brain, for all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies, is hers, and she’s going to do wonderful, amazing things with it. I’ll tell her I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do in this world.
I’ll tell her kindergarten is going to be so much fun, and she will learn so much, and I can’t wait to greet her as she gets off the bus at the end of her first big day.