As of today, we’ve unlocked a new level in the parenting video game–two kids in school. Even as a soon-to-be father of four, I still feel like this whole fatherhood thing didn’t start all that long ago, so I find myself marveling at how quickly my kids have grown and at the mature new life experiences they are starting to encounter.

Today’s new experiences: Kindergarten for Maddie, Preschool for Charlie, and the undivided attention of an only child for Sammy, even if only for a few hours.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. The greatest blessing of the pandemic has been my ability to work from home and not miss out on moments like today. Since I can put on some clothes and pop down to the basement to start my work day in a matter of minutes, I was able to concentrate fully on the task of rousing our sleeping children1 and getting them out the door.

I was also on camera duty, taking the all-important first day of school photos as they took turns eating their morning yogurt and brushing their teeth. Sammy wandered around aimlessly throughout this process, blissfully unaware of the momentousness of the occasion.

Once we were all dressed and ready to hit the trail, I tried to take a couple more photos outside, but things got a bit teary-eyed when Maddie realized that her impressively purse-like lunchbox was in her backpack and thus not visible in said photos. We corrected this mistake, snapped a few shots, loaded Sam in the stroller and got on our way.

We are blessed to live a short walk from our parish and Catholic school, so we can make it from our front door to the student dropoff line in as little as six minutes, traffic pending. There is one major road to cross and, just in time for the first day of school, there was a construction lane closure messing with the traffic flow a bit.

Our merry band dashed across the street, paused to afix our masks, and walked across the school’s lot to get to our designated entrances. The spectre of COVID had already reared its ugly head in the form of taking down Charlie’s teacher, who tested positive in the week since we had met her at the school open house. A substitute teacher won the jackpot and would soon be dealing with first-time preschoolers on their very first day of school.

The school parking lot was a frenzied mess: strollers and backpacks everywhere, mothers with tears streaming down their cheeks and into their masks, children wailing as loudly as the sound of the 8 a.m. bell. Since Maddie and Charlie both started at 8, Theresa and I divided and conquered. I took Maddie, the old pro, to her kindergarten line and waited for the teacher to arrive. She came out sporting oversized neon sunglasses and individually greeted each child in the line.2 Maddie took on her stoic, semi-shy posture as she stood on the yellow parking lot stripe and waited to take her first steps into her new reality of five-days-a-week schooling. I gave her a hug and a masked kiss, wished her well and watched her follow the sunglasses into the building.

I was also able to tell her that I would be there to pick her up from school today as well. Her eyes lit up at the thought, and so did mine. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many fellow fathers at both dropoff and pickup today–a sight that surely would not exist without the reordering of our work lives3 thanks to the pandemic. COVID or no COVID, I would try to be as involved a breadwinning father as I possibly could be, but having the ability and flexibility to be present more often–and seeing how much my kids relish that–is truly special. Their experience of me as a father and my experience and engagement with their childhood is a coronavirus side effect that I want to linger forever.

With Maddie safely enveloped in kindergarten, I went back to find Theresa and get a report on Charlie’s entry. I eventually found her standing in the vestibule of another entrance and watched through the doors as our parish priest took Charlie by the hand and walked him to his preschool room. Apparently the preschool parade had descended into utter chaos with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The lines dissolved and children ran amok, as parents were not allowed into the building for COVID reasons. To his credit, Charlie was still not crying when the priest rescued him and provided safe transport through the throngs.

With intense curiosity about what our children were currently experiencing, we returned home with Sam. I reported to my basement office with plenty of time to spare and started my workday. Theresa reverted to those halcyon days of 2015 when Maddie was her only parenting responsibility and she could actually accomplish projects around the house.

At 11:15 Theresa texted me that it was time to go pick up Charlie. We returned to the parking lot and the door swung open. I could hear a low hum of children crying. Uh oh. The woman next to me spotted her son and loudly muttered, “Oh sh*t, he’s still crying. He’s been crying all day.”

When I approached the door to get Charlie, I could tell by his eyes that tears had fallen recently at some point, but I had a suspicion that it was because he was standing by the kid who had been crying all day. The preschool aide confirmed this theory and said that he had actually been fine and engaged all day, but got a little upset when all the other kids were crying around dismissal time.

For his part, Charlie seemed very excited about his main memory of the day–that he got to play with both dinosaurs and Sesame Street cars. The only downside was when he tearily said we had forgotten to pack his animal crackers snack. We had not forgotten to pack them, they just were so low in the tall pouch of his backpack that neither he nor his teacher had located them. A half-eaten bag of cheddar cheese popcorn sat drearily inside his backpack–a sad reminder of this parent fail-that-wasn’t-really-a-fail. We’ll put the snack in a different pouch when he goes back on Friday…

A couple hours later, we returned to pick up Maddie, who had a great day at school. As a socially conscious kindergartener, she was sure to tell us almost immediately that not only had she made friends with some of the girls in her class…she had made friends with all of the girls in her class. As a preschooler last year, Maddie had about 3 friends at the end of the year, defined by the fact that they knew each others’ names and sometimes talked or played near each other. I’m not sure what constitutes friendship in kindergarten, but I’m excited that she already feels connected to her classmates!

All in all, it was a pretty successful first day of school, and both kids are excited to go back tomorrow (Maddie) and Friday (Charlie). I am breathing a huge sigh of relief, as I truly had no idea what Charlie would be like on his own for basically the first time in his life. Obviously this is just one day, but I think it was a big one for him, especially when he was able to mostly keep his cool and enjoy himself even as he was surrounded by unknown children who were all acting like they had just been kidnapped.

In other news, we are less than 3 weeks from baby number four. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about him before he gets here, but for now, I have to go to bed. It’s a school night!

  1. Just before the school year began, they all learned to sleep blissfully until 8 a.m. on most days, so we are all suffering from the necessary earlier start time of the school day.
  2. Just like my typical work day.
  3. and our priorities?

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