Sept. 15 2010 10:18 AM

An argument in favor of the kindergartener

The backpack
Photo by Aaryn Belfer
It’s official. Last Tuesday—after I helped thread her arms through the stiff straps of a backpack covered in more pink and white butterflies than were flitting around in my stomach—I walked my daughter one block down the street for her first day of kindergarten and, in doing so, became a cog in the busted-up, broke-down, rusted-out, caving-in jalopy known as the San Diego Unified School District. But this column isn’t about SDUSD, a bottomless well of editorial fodder; there will be plenty of time for my commentary on that hot mess over the next 13 years.

No, this is about Holy shit! I’m not the parent of a toddler anymore!

You know the first thing I did after leaving La Princesse at class that morning was to b- line for a cocktail. I wanted to bring a flask in my purse and take a nice, big draw from it just as I stepped off school property, but I really have made an effort to leave high school behind me. It would be a bummer to get blacklisted from my kid’s new school for drinking on campus. On Day One. I’d rather earn my banishment with some caustic columns.

Of course, I was a little misty as I watched my child’s giant backpack walk away from me toward her new classroom, the whole of her eclipsed except for two long, skinny legs in laceless, pink-sequined Chuck Taylors and a perfectly round Afro-puff topping it all off. It was downright cartoony, and I hummed “School House Rock” on my way to meet my Maker’s Mark, thinking of how far I’d come.

Oh, the memories: There was the time Ruby smeared poop on my face. And the incessant late-night wailing that forced Sam and me into garage exile for the better part of a year. Or the meltdown at the pumpkin patch—man, that was an illusion killer. In an act of self-preservation, I pretended I didn’t know her and just let her sob and leak snot on herself in the dirt amid hay bales and ponies, while all the other families sipped cider and took photos for their scrapbooks and happily picked out their gourds and corncobs and whatnot.

Those miserable days have receded sufficiently and are now humorous anecdotes I offer in conversations with new parents to explicitly convey that they are not alone, and to subliminally convey the fact that they are completely fucked. To this day, whenever I see disheveled parents maneuvering diaper bags and strollers and Snack Traps while hunched over trying to prevent their new crawler from tumbling head first into a menacing pile of fire ants, my first thought is always: Better them than me.

Babies might smell good, but let’s be honest: They mostly suck.

Having a 5-year-old is much more palatable. For one thing, they don’t pee and poop in their pants anymore. That’s a big bonus. Sure, there’s the occasional oops-I-waited-too-long leak that they neglect to mention and which you only find out about when you pick up their inside-out heap of clothes they left on the bathroom floor. Unexpectedly wet kiddie undies evoke the same kind of reaction as walking into an unseen spider web.

And as long as I’m talking bodily functions, being summoned to the bathroom to verify that, Yes, honey, you’re right. That is diarrhea, is only better than a diaper trauma by a number of degrees. But it is, unarguably, better.

Another plus is communication. When a baby doesn’t care for her food, she spits it out like an oscillating lawn sprinkler, and suddenly you’re washing walls while contemplating taking lovers, Seasonale and a secret apartment in Crown Point (a small dream, yes, but it makes visitation easier than an apartment in Positano). By contrast, a 5-year-old will keep the grilled onion on her protruding tongue, contort her face like Popeye and flail her hands in the air next to her head until you remove the offending bit with your napkin. After a long sip of water from her glass (no more sippie cups!), she’ll look directly at you and say, “What the hell, Mama? I said ‘No onions!’” Getting dressed is so much more pleasant with a 5-year-old around: Not only can she dress herself, but she can also create ensembles. She has a will and is going to exert it. Giving in to her proclivity for pairing autumnhued plaids with pastel stripes and primary polka dots, often layered and topped with a pink gingham belt and/or a tulle skirt, beats the hell out of onesies and baby-jeans with those maddeningly miniscule crotch snaps.

I stay out of the fashion choices in my home now and only venture into jacket-battle on truly cold days. And I do insist on underwear beneath skirts if we’re going to be leaving the house. I’m a stickler on that point. You never know when you might be exiting a limousine to the flashing bulbs of paparazzi. You never know when you might suffer that accidental leak.

The best thing, though, about a kindergartener, is that they can make you proud in deeply meaningful ways that can’t be dismissed as gas (a first smile is still charming) or natural progression (first words, first steps, first haircuts, first skull-shaped self-inking stamp pressed repeatedly along every wall in the house at a 36-inch height). A toddler is the drunken friend whom you must prevent from dying; a 5-year-old hears “No” and offers 17 plausible ways the answer should be “Yes.”

“What do you call the person that’s in charge of the school?” Ruby asked her dad during curriculum night while she and three of her new friends were pretending to play classroom. The role of “teacher” had been delegated and Ruby was unsatisfied as “pupil.”

“You mean the principal?” Sam asked. “Yeah,” Ruby said. She skipped back to where her friends were playing. “OK,” she said to them, “I’m the principal.”

Au revoir to those bruising toddler years. And bottoms up to the brutality ahead.

Write to and