The instant empty nest

Watching my three kids head to kindergarten—on the same day


Jill S. Browning


Reader essay Bieda," the school principal calls.

A beaming Ms. Bieda collects her crisp papers.

It is kindergarten roundup day at school, held three months before the first fall bell will ring. While we parents are prepped on school rules by the principal, our children—the kindergartners of 2005—are introduced to their classroom by their future teacher.

"Browning." The principal continues alphabetically. I stand, retrieve the first load and remain standing.

"Browning." The principal’s eyebrows lift. I smile sheepishly and start stacking.

"Browning." The principal and other parents are now laughing. The secret is out on why the class size is a bit inflated this year: The Browning triplets are starting school.

I finally sit down, balancing the three folders on my lap. I know the information inside each one is identical and wish that the school secretary could have spared some trees. It’s only the beginning of the paper trail, I know.

I look around the room. Half of the parents are elementary school veterans, wise to the ways of field trips, Market Day and PTA. The ones I know well, though, are rookies like me. Their first child is entering school. But unlike me, they will still be caring for a preschooler, toddler or infant at home. While they will experience a predictable crescendo into the school-age years, our family is bracing for a big bang.

After the principal dismisses the group, I chat with others. Does anyone else feel wistful? Is kindergarten really the beginning of the end of life as we’ve known it for the past five years?

Which isn’t really such a bad thing, considering that life for the past five years has been a tad intense. When I found out I was pregnant with triplets and told my boss, she exclaimed, "Well, you won’t be coming back to work!" I never dreamed that I would trade in my MBA for PBJs, but I did.

I approached my job as a mother with the same zest I had for the corporate world. To ensure a productive schedule when they were infants, I immersed myself in books about sleep strategies, and our mantra "sleep begets sleep" worked like a charm.

During the toddler years I became so well versed in child-proofing techniques that I could probably qualify for a job at Homeland Security. My sanity almost didn’t make it through the toilet training phase, as I bravely but unsuccessfully attempted Dr. Phil’s get-tough, potty-train-’em-in-a-day method. But somehow we survived the false starts and puddles, and those 15,000 dirty diapers are now a distant memory. We’ve had it tough and had to be tough—times three.

"Just wait until first grade," a seasoned mom warned. "Then they’re gone all day long."

I immediately filed her comment away with the hundreds of other remarks that we’ve received over the last five years behind the wheels of a triple stroller. Prognosticators of doom and gloom seem to flock to us, forewarning of obvious obstacles: "Just wait until they all start crawling." "Just wait until they all start walking." "Just wait until they all hit the terrible 2s."

My next door neighbor’s mother-in-law, a woman I’d never met, gave me a plaque that reads: "Can’t Scare Me—I Have Triplets!" It’s true—after having three babies on one day, few things can really surprise or unsettle you.

But something about kindergarten does scare me. It’s symbolic: It’s their official entry into The System—the point of no return. It’s where our kids will first encounter academic expectations. They will be judged, sometimes disappointed. They will enjoy fellowship, meeting and making lifelong friends. They will be challenged socially. They will be hurt. Kindergarten is a new chapter, marking the permanent end of babyhood.

Granted, I don’t want to go back in time. We’ve graduated from those five years of milestones, and it’s a process I don’t have the energy to face again.

The truth is, I want the kids back in my uterus. Feeling (and looking) 27 months pregnant was uncomfortable, but it was comforting to know where they were at all times. I had ultimate control. And they were quiet.

But the quiet will return. Only now it will be in the form of two-and-a-half hours each day, five days a week. It will deafen me more than our loudest days at the park.

We parents of the kindergartners of 2005 file back into the classroom to pick up our kids. They are lined up facing us, chins high, chests out, ready to sing. Sing! They’ve only been gone for 30 minutes, and in that time they’ve completed a craft and learned a song. To the tune of "I’m a Little Teapot," and complete with choreography, comes the ditty:

I’m a little fishy, watch me swim.

Here is my tail, here is my fin.

When I want to have fun, with my friends,

I wiggle my tail and jump right in.

After we’re dismissed, my kids, showing me the highlights of the kindergarten room, pull my arms in opposite directions with more force than I knew they had. They are exhilarated, eager to learn. They are ready to jump right in.

They are swimmers now.

They are ready.

Am I?

Jill S. Browning is a writer living in Downers Grove. She has three children, all of whom were born on the same day.

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