Last Thursday morning was an unexpectedly emotional one for me. For the first time in 15 months, my 9-year-old Weston returned to the daycare that he’s gone to since he was 2.
Just like every other Thursday since last September, I took our 2-year-old Archer to daycare. But this time, Weston was with us as he was going to participate in their drop-in school-aged summer care — his first structured social experience since March of 2020 when we pushed pause on our life, including his whole world outside the walls of our house. He’s been doing remote school ever since. Despite Weston being a natural athlete, we also withdrew him from all organized sports until this spring after my husband and I were fully vaccinated.
All of his friendships suddenly came to standstill as well. He doesn’t have his own tablet or phone, so communication with any of his buddies was next to non-existent. He often talked about his pals, telling stories as if they just happened and expressed worry that they’d forget him.
I’m going to fast-forward over the other heart-wrenching challenges and countless breakdowns my family went through to play it as safe as we did for various reasons while raising a 9-year-old and a toddler during a pandemic because that would be an entirely different post altogether.
He has been worried because most school-aged kids he’d grown up with had left the center when the pandemic hit. Weston, being seven years older than Archer, has always filled the shoes of a big brother perfectly, but as the two boys walked into the daycare center holding hands, it was Weston who felt like the little brother instead. Archer, who was confident, and led the way through the entrance, stopping to get temps checked, down the hallway to his own classroom.
Weston waited as I dropped Archer in his class, and when I looked back through the window at my soon-to-be 4th grader standing in the hall, he suddenly looked like the toddler he’d been seven years ago when I’d left him there the first time. The mama-bear surge hit my heart fiercely, but I shook it off to rejoin him. I gave him a huge hug when we stopped in front of the heavy, red metal classroom door leading to the room in which his memories of innumerable Pokemon trades, Lego building, craft projects, and inside jokes were running wild.
I could feel the nervous clamminess on his skin as he whispered through his mask, “Mom, my heart is beating funny.” With those words, mine began to as well. I told him it’d be OK, but wasn’t sure whether his version of OK would be the same as mine.
Once through the door, we immediately were greeted by one of the unfamiliar teachers. Of course there have been so many staffing changes in the time since he’d left. I could see his disappointment and the brimming tears in his eyes as he searched the room for someone he recognized…for anyone who would help him feel, again, like this was indeed a place that had once been his home away from home.
And then suddenly, we heard “Weston!” from across the room. A kid Weston had been super close to over the years whom he hasn’t seen since mid-March of last year, came barreling toward him, his radiant smile hidden behind a mask, but his eyes revealing nothing but joy. Despite the “no hugs” pandemic rules, the kid threw himself into Weston’s arms. I stifled an out-loud sob of relief and made eye contact with Weston over his friend’s shoulder. I was so thankful to see joy and elation had taken him over, the normalcy of it all. I felt them fully, too.
I wished him a great day, awkwardly hugged him goodbye because I felt something building inside ME that I wasn’t going to be able to hide. I scurried back down the hallway and out the door, gulped the fresh air, still feeling the impending explosion of mom emotions. Safely in my car, all the feels of parenting during this past unprecedented year flooded over me, and I let them all out. By the time I got home, I was emotionally and mentally and physically spent.
This pandemic era, and the social isolation that came with it, has been such a cumbersome load to bear as a mother. And I am so excited and grateful to have more and more experiences that are edging us closer to normalcy. I want to remember these truly bittersweet moments as we let life back in, and let ourselves back into life, which feels a bit less paused now.
With what I hope to be the end scene from the year that almost broke us, I don’t want to rewind or fast forward; I just want to push play.
Darbi G. Hebrank, an Omaha, Nebraska, transplant, has always been drawn to telling stories, though the format of those stories has changed over time. She earned a degree in magazine journalism from Mizzou, and her post-college career was in PR and marketing. But it is storytelling through photographs that is her passion; her newborn, family, and wedding photography business is entering its 15th year. When she’s not documenting the lives of others, she is trying to make the most of her own, alongside her husband, Neil, their 9-year-old, Weston, 2-year-old, Archer, and their two cats, Kramer and Moxie. She has become a night owl in order to carve out her “me time,” which she spends on decorative planning, watercolor painting, and other creative endeavors.