Why I Went Crazy When My Son Started Preschool

Julie Nicholls / Corbis

I don't remember the exact moment I became a mother. My son's birth certificate says 8:18 p.m. on June 18, 2008, but I'll have to take the hospital's word for that—the whole day was a bit of a blur. I do, however, know the minute I declared myself a complete failure as a mom. It was Monday, Sept. 20, 2010, at 9:38 a.m. It was supposed to be my Gabe's first day of day care. But it turned out to be his first sick day instead. He was struck down by a fever and persistent cough that I assume he got from mingling immune systems with the other 2-year-olds at his nursery school during a weeklong exercise in torture called "phase-in." Last week, Gabe spent a few days getting used to his new environs ... first an hour with me, than an hour alone at the center, then three hours with me, and so on. Very psychologically comforting for him but a disaster for me—I spent the week running from phase-in to home to work to phase-in to work to home, juggling caretakers and deadlines all day until I collapsed in a heap to yell at my husband, whose only crime was not being able to help since it was his first full week at work after summer vacation. (He's a teacher, but I somehow made that out to be a crime punishable by endless sniping from me.) So now Gabe's all phased in but can't go to school because of the fever. Those are the rules of the day-care center. I'm home again—another day off—my third in a week's time. Thanks to this illness and Gabe's move from a full-time babysitter to day care, I've completely shirked my workplace responsibilities. But at 9:38 a.m., when I hung up on my mom for no reason, my BlackBerry died, and my son started crying all at the same time, I realized I'd lost the fight for work-life balance—cue my own uncontrollable crying. Thankfully, 2-year olds being the contrary creatures that they are, my son thought Mommy's boo-hoos were hysterically funny. In fact, my tears cheered him up so much, he condescended to eat his waffle without spitting any of it out.

Wait, did I mention that I was covered in vomit? Apparently, it's common for toddlers to cough until they throw up ... a lot. I had given up trying to deflect his aim toward the floor at about 8 a.m. when I realized there was no way I would be making it into work. Look, it's not that I thought motherhood would be all glamorous, but I did think I'd be cleaner than your average crack addict. And I did think that as I got used to the demands of motherhood, I would begin to relax a bit and stop being so overwhelmed. But on that beautiful September day, I realized I was doomed to spend the rest of my life completely off balance—emotionally, physically, hygienically, and fiscally.

Yes, I'm whining. Yes, there are worse things in the world than being a working mom in New York City. But you have to understand, barf-stained pajamas and seperation anxiety are nothing compared to the permanent low-grade guilt that has plagued me since I decided to put Gabe in school. Even though millions of children go to nursery school and turn out OK—heck, even though I went to nursery school when I was 2—I still feel bad. Which is really wacky considering that in July, I was consumed with guilt because Gabe wasn't in day care. Yup, you read that right. I spent all summer convinced I'd doomed my child to future failure because he didn't have enough face time with other kids, and now I'm afraid he feels abandoned and will end up like Lindsay Lohan. Why isn't there ever a definitive opinion about what's good for your kid? No matter what choice you make, there's always somebody willing to tell you that you've doomed your kid to a nightmare life of drug and alcohol abuse. By the time he's old enough to go to kindergarten, I'll probably be on my third nervous breakdown.

Parenting is an endurance sport, not a sprint. Actually, it's more like a decades-long Ironman Triathalon—just when you're done biking 112 miles, you have to get in the water to swim 2.4 more (and don't forget the marathon). When you get pregnant, everybody tells you your life is about to change, but what they should do is squeeze your cheeks hard until your eyes are staring deep into theirs and say, "Your life as you know it is over and it is never coming back, ever. From now on, it will take you 40 minutes minimum to leave the house. You will walk around second-guessing your every child-raising move and there will never be enough money. Plus, you will do it all to the soundtrack of Thomas and Friends and covered in vomit." Everybody knows about the good stuff—the love, the gift of seeing a human being grow in front of your eyes, the sweet little voice saying "Mommy" 62,125,458 times a day. But the days you think your life has completely gone off the rails and you're failing at a job you can't quit, that's the stuff they need to teach you about in Lamaze. Labor pains are a holiday compared with shoving your screaming child into the arms of a caretaker and running down the street like a criminal.

Kelley is a staff writer covering society and cultural affairs. Find her on Twitter.