I’m standing outside a row of heavy, metal doors and tentatively press the bright red “call” button.

“Good morning, can I help you?” a bright, cheerful woman’s voice asks.

“Yes, I’m here for my registration appointment?” I ask in return, despite the fact that it’s a statement. I’ve chosen to speak it as a question as if I’m not quite sure. Is that indeed what I’m here for? Can that possibly be true?

“Welcome! I’ll buzz you right in. You can meet me in the office.” I hear the buzzer sound, the clicks of the lock mechanism unwinding, and I push the door open into an open lobby, multiple hallways intertwined in front of me, the scene bright with fluorescent lights. A colorful mural on one wall, trophy cases on another. Bulletin boards and cut-out letters, dotted with dates and reminders.

I make my way to the office, clutching a stack of paperwork. The deed to our house. A utility bill. My driver’s license and a pile of heath records. My baby’s birth certificate. All certifying we are who we say we are. We live where we say we live.

Because I’m here to register our son for kindergarten.

It smells like school always smelled. I know you know the smell I mean. Like cafeteria lunch and industrial disinfectant. Like rubber dodge balls and crayons. Like chalk dust and dry erase markers. Like pencil shavings and stale coffee.

The office is airy and open with windows facing out from all sides into the hallways. The friendly secretary at the desk greets me, “Mrs. Dunn? Welcome!” She must smell the fear wafting off of me because she smiles so kindly, her eyes glinting at me in a knowing way. She gently takes the stack of sweaty papers I’m gripping and offers me a clipboard in return, walking me through the forms I’ll need to fill in and the PTA sign-up. She ushers me to a bench and lets me get to work.

As I fumble through my phone finding phone numbers for our pediatrician, our dentist and deciding in what order I should list our emergency contacts, I can’t help but be totally distracted by the buzz and hum of school happening all around me. I’d forgotten how much energy there is. How it reminds me of a bee hive. The endless movement, I could swear it was choreographed.

RELATED: Once You Start Kindergarten, You’ll Be a Little Less Mine

A child bursts into the office breathlessly, “I’m sorry! I meant to bring this note in first thing! I’m going home on a different bus today!” He’s sweaty, his curly hair already wild from the day.

“Thank you Aaron, no problem. See you later!” the secretary answers. Another child walks in with her mother as she signs her back into class. “How was the dentist Olivia? You’re headed to the cafeteria now; you can meet your class there.”  

I get the feeling I need to remember this secretary.

The principal walks in, a round, jolly man thrilled to tell the office all at once how excited the kids were when they entered the cafeteria today only to see that the Plexiglas had been removed from all tables. A pandemic holdover effort just now being relaxed. “They actually CHEERED!” he laughs.

As I continue to work through my clipboard of questions, I come to one page devoted solely to my child. I scan questions like what does he enjoy and what is he good at? What is he nervous about or does he have any anxieties? And finally, do we have any concerns heading into the fall?

That last one made me stop, and I couldn’t help but laugh. One measly line dedicated to my concerns about sending my only child to kindergarten? I could write them a novel about the concerns I have for the baby I held in my arms, who I became a stay-at-home mom for, who I rocked and sang to and cradled and tickled, and who I love more than anything on this planet.

I’m worried about the typical things, of course, making friends and keeping up with the teacher’s lessons. Remembering how to tie his shoes and zip his jacket. Lasting through a long day of brand new activity. It all feels groundbreaking although I know it isn’t.

What I don’t write on that one measly line is that I’m worried for myself too.

I’m worried that nobody told me I’d taken him to his last library storytime. The one when my toddler tucked himself into my lap as we all sat criss-cross applesauce on the rug and listened to stories and music and giggled at the bubble machine. I’m worried I might have carried that kid on my hip for the last time because he’s well over 50 pounds now and also because he has absolutely no desire for me to pick him up any longer.

I’m worried I won’t remember what he smelled like when he was a baby. How I would bury my face in his fat little neck and inhale the deep scent of baby. I’m worried I forgot to imprint in my memory the way he looked in those hooded towels after bath time. The ones with animal faces on the tops and fuzzy tails right where his bottom would be. I’m worried I didn’t know that it all disappeared so fast. I’m worried that I’m sitting on this bench right now, and I’m worried I might start crying.

I refocus my eyes on the papers in front of me and glance up at the clock on the wall. I’ve been here for about 30 minutes, but five years’ worth of memories have somehow managed to parade through my mind. I exhale slowly, not even realizing I’d been holding my breath.

And I remember how I felt before our son was born.

How many questions I had and how nervous I was. How I wasn’t sure I would be any good at this. How I hoped I could live up to all he wanted and needed me to be as his mother. I remember walking through the enormous glass doors that led to the labor and delivery floor in the hospital and feeling like I’d just walked through the doors that led me to the rest of my life.

RELATED: My Heart Isn’t Ready For You To Start Kindergarten—But Yours Is

And suddenly I remember something else. I remember that while I’m letting the door close behind us on playgroups and Elmo, on sticky-fingered, smudged preschool crafts and sippy cups, I know the moment I pressed that big red call button and pushed my way through those heavy, metal doors this morning, I wasn’t just opening them to enter the school.

I was opening them to make way for so much more. For watching him nail his math homework and helping him slog through a book report. For P.E. class and back-to-school night. For new friendships and first sleepovers. For book fairs and dioramas and science projects.

I stand, turn in my paperwork, and add a few dates to my calendar. My smile moves from frozen to genuine and the secretary smiles back. She’d seen this scene a thousand times before. I thanked the office, and as I left through those same doors I had entered just half an hour ago, I felt something like relief.

Because as mothers, this is where we thrive. In the in-between.

We are always changing with our children. Bobbing, weaving, and readjusting to their patterns. Because nothing, most especially children, stays the same. And while I might have thought I’d never done this part before, in truth I’d already changed and grown with my child a thousand tiny times. And what had just a moment ago felt so strange began to feel familiar. In fact, it felt like coming home.

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Lauren Dunn

Lauren Dunn is a former PR pro having worked for global firms and niche national associations. She currently resides in Richmond, VA with her husband and 5-year-old son, both of whom give her purpose, unconditional love, and mounds of sports-related laundry. Today Lauren picks up part-time freelance or contract work as a writer, strategist, and storyteller in between carpool lines, soccer games, and Target runs.

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