Friendships, Family, Freedom (Or, Notes from Sabbatical, Weeks 8-11)

Why do kids in California return to school so early? It’s the end of summer! It’s back to school! Like, what? It’s only the middle of August. Last week in L.A., we hung out with friends visiting from Brooklyn, and their kids don’t go back to school until after Labor Day. I think it’s the same for Emilia’s cousins in England. Perhaps this shift earlier into August has occurred over time, but I’m not sure why, and it’s pretty annoying. Especially since “summer” in the Bay Area is only just beginning, climate-wise.

The last several weeks were a mix of travel and Emilia’s transition from preschool to elementary school. We stayed in Anaheim and went to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Legoland, and also spent time with friends in Echo Park, Encino, Venice Beach, and Pasadena. It was fun, but also exhausting. But I’d rather keep busy on a trip—and put forth the effort to see friends, especially friends with kids—because overall the dynamic makes for a better time for all three of us. Being out and about when in an unfamiliar place is usually challenging with Emilia when Nick and I are her primary form of entertainment. This is the case even as we navigate a theme park with so much to do and see. Being a naive parent, I think I assumed that a kid would hit a certain age and magically just run out onto a playground and start playing with other kids. And many of them do. But it doesn’t work that way for her and us, and if she’s gotten any of my genes, she’s certainly more on the observant and reserved side than not. All of this is to say that our L.A. trip was really great in that we filled our days with playdates when possible. I also liked what I saw of South Pasadena and would stay there again; the more we visit L.A., the more I love it—especially the East Side, where our various friends live—but overall I don’t know if I could live there. I’d really need to be OK with all the traffic—every day, at both long and short distances, and at any time. It would wear me down.

Post-trip, we had a few free days before Emilia’s first day of kindergarten. She finally decided she wanted to wear her helmet (she refused to put it on for months, which meant that she was not allowed to ride her new bike), so we went out onto the trail to practice. We’ll keep the training wheels on while she gets the hang of it, but it’s nice to see her zoom down the greenway and watch her experience this first taste of freedom. I remember when my brother taught me how to ride a bike on our very long driveway. I was so excited to explore the streets of our neighborhood by myself. In no time I was biking on my own half-a-mile away to the small market that sold Dreyer’s ice cream. I oftentimes didn’t have any money, but I’d go into the store and walk through the aisles to the ice cream section to just look at the flavors. I was only 4 or 5 years old! What a different time we live in. I find myself overly protective of her while I walk alongside her as she rides; we’re in more of an urban neighborhood from where I grew up, and there are so many erratic drivers and dangerous intersections here. But I still feel a little sad that she isn’t able to experience what I did at this age. I guess I now understand why some people move to the suburbs or hunt for cul-de-sacs when searching for a home?

I think about other ways, then, to give her some physical and mental space to experience independence and choice, especially while living in such a small home (we are currently in a unit that’s less than 900 sq. ft.). She has her own room, which she doesn’t like at the moment because it’s “not set up the right way.” We’ve started to purge old books and toys, and I want to help her organize it more so she wants to spend time in it. Right now, she spends most of her time in a 4 ft. x 5 ft. nook behind our sofa—a little corner of the living room where she has a bookcase and art table and keeps all of her favorite things: craft supplies, trinkets, artwork, small stuffed animals, and weird random items that really belong in the trash. (She’s basically a little hoarder.) It’s interesting to watch her play in there quietly; we are not allowed inside (she made a sign that says “STOP” so we cannot enter her space). I would love for her to have a much bigger room, but buying a house, especially in this market, isn’t really in the cards for us right now.

This of course leads me to thoughts about “home”—about our family finding our place, about friendships—that stir up many feelings. I wrote about this a bit on Longreads in my response to Grace Loh Prasad’s essay on motherhood, family, and community, and have been thinking about her reflections again after we returned from L.A. and spent time with a few close friends and their kids. Those sorts of connections from my college years continue to be my strongest friendships, even though I rarely see these people (maybe once or twice a year). I am grateful to see them, yet also get sad because distance prevents us from creating stronger bonds between our families. In her essay, Prasad reflects on a lack of a social network in California, and how envious she is of mothers who have close friends and family, and also ties to other mothers, in their immediate area. I added how difficult it is to make friends with other adults, and lasting friendships with other parents. Nick and I have begun to make stronger ties with some parents at Emilia’s former preschool; however, we have all moved on to new schools, so I wonder which relationships will stick, and also realize that these sorts of ties will naturally evolve or break because of our kids’ lives and preferences.

In her essay, Prasad also talks about her own mother through the lens of a gigantic spider sculpture in Tokyo—she describes her mother as a “weaver of community” and the glue that has kept their family together. My huge extended Lucas family recently came together for a reunion in Napa: several clans together, tied by blood and all related because of my grandfather and his siblings and their descendants. It’s incredible to see this group of people grow over the years—me and my first and second cousins and others all grown up raising their own kids. Today, my parents and aging aunts and uncles are the ones that keep in touch and maintain connections between these bigger families. As we drove home from the party, Nick asked me who of my generation would continue to do this—to keep this massive family tree intact, to encourage all of these branches to continue intertwining—and I said I did not know. His comments made me think about Prasad’s thoughts on family in a different way, and while I have no idea if we will maintain that family web in the future, it’s somewhat comforting to know that it could exist. Oddly, this is one of the reasons I still feel strongly about the Bay Area, and California in general—this huge familial network.

The morning of Emilia’s first day of kindergarten went fairly smooth, until it didn’t—she refused to brush her teeth and leave the house, which then led to a near-tantrum. Somehow we snapped her out of it and she hopped on my back and we walked to school. I experience anxiety more and more as I’ve become a parent, and I’d felt anxious about this first day for weeks; I was very nervous and thought everything would go wrong. We gave her a big hug as the kids lined up behind their teachers to go inside their classrooms; she started to walk in the line and follow the kid in front of her, but she kept turning her head in our direction to make sure she could see us and to check that we were still there. I clearly picture her little face turning around—first with a bit of fear, then again with tears welling up. She suddenly got out of line and ran back to us, crying. We hugged her again, and a staff member came over to guide her into the building.

I was very emotional and thought about her all day. And when I picked her up, and I saw her come out to me with her backpack and a smile on her face, I must admit I cried. I asked if she had a good day, and she looked at me with wide eyes and nodded. And then after another hug, she said: “It was a lot,” and she said it in a way that made me look at her in a new light. She’s growing up! She’s feeling emotions, having experiences. All on her own. On her second day, the woman who brought her out to me during pickup mentioned that she’d cried a bit during after-school care but “pulled herself together,” which is ultimately a positive thing to hear.

It’s been a big few days for all of us. So I’m ready for Friday—which is also my birthday—and hopefully a restful weekend to reset. (I’m treating myself to a Thai/deep tissue massage!)

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

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