Today was the first day of school for my two daughters. And as the first day of school got closer and closer, the tension in my home weighed heavier and heavier. Sensory issues were exacerbated. Patience was pretty much non-existent. We were snapping at each other. Annoying each other. Restless. And at times teary.

As the mother, my anxieties and tension were partly due to my own memories of the start of the school year. Legend has it that I would cry every day for the first six weeks of school throughout primary school. My mother tells the story that the school had our phone number memorised as I was down in the front office asking to come home regularly. I didn’t feel good. And I couldn’t quite explain what it was – I just didn’t like being at school even though I was a bright student. As an adult, I now know that I likely had a combination of sensory overload, separation anxiety, and struggled to understand social cues due to autism. I felt like nobody was listening to me. Like nobody was helping me. This was actually a big reason why I got a teaching qualification years ago – I wanted to help the kids who were struggling like I was so that they didn’t have to feel as bad at school as I did. Unfortunately, I found out that the sensory overload of being at a school didn’t go away when I was a teacher, and my teaching career was over very quickly.

So yes, I always get stressed about the first day of school. Remembering how bad I felt. Wanting to make sure my kids don’t feel like I did. And with my younger daughter, she has struggled a bit with the separation, but the anticipation of the first day of school this year has been really tough on her. And I feel like I have been prevented from giving her the help she needs due to the covid rules that were put into place at the school. Rules that I can’t quite make sense of. Parents aren’t allowed through the school gates. I mean, we aren’t even talking about going into buildings. We aren’t even allowed inside the gates to stand near our children’s classrooms. This made no sense to me when I got to the school and saw that the parents were all crowded together in front of the school because there’s a lot less room in front of the school than there is behind the gates.

These rules added to the anxiety and stress for our whole family. We didn’t know what to expect the first day of school; even with all of the communication that was sent home. It’s hard to prepare kids for the conversations that will be had about things that are anxiety provoking – such as vaccines, RATs, illness and death. It’s hard to prepare for the signs that are up all over the schools. The ones that are constantly reminding kids of illness. Reminding them that there’s something to be afraid of. The masks that tell our kids’ nervous systems that there’s something wrong. All day long, they are exposed to reminders of covid. And maybe some people can filter this out better than others. But when you have a more sensitive nervous system, that can really add up to overload very quickly.

But today was the day. We wouldn’t know how it went until we got through it. When we arrived at the gate with my youngest, she got all teary. She wanted us to walk her to her door, but we were not allowed – even though she is autistic, and has anxiety disorder. My heart hurt so much that I couldn’t be there to help her. And if she asked to turn around and come home, I would have taken her home. But she wanted to stay. And so she did. And I spent the day worried about my daughters. Anxious.

When it was time to pick them up, I waited outside of the gate where we dropped my daughter off. The gate that was designated for her year group. And I waited and waited and waited. I watched many other kids come through the gates. I began to worry, and since I wasn’t allowed to go to her classroom, I found a teacher who rang my daughter’s teacher. She had left ten minutes ago. Surely we should have seen her come through the gate already. But she didn’t. She went to the place where we used to meet last year when parents were not allowed through the gates, but when there was no rule about what gate she could use to exit the school. Fortunately, she found her older sister and I found them at the place where I was supposed to meet her sister – at the shops across the road.

But I felt really afraid when I couldn’t find her. And if I felt like that, just imagine what a young girl felt like when she had her first day of school and didn’t think anyone came to pick her up. She was really upset. She didn’t want to talk about her day because she was so upset from feeling lost on her first day of school. Usually she likes to talk about her first day. Not this year.

I hope that by bedtime, when she’s had a chance to unwind and do the things that bring her comfort, that she will tell me about her day. I think that she will go back tomorrow. We’ll make a better plan, and ask her teacher to remind her where she will be picked up. But I still think that parents should not be kept out of the school grounds.

And I’m saddened and angered by the way things are. And how it’s impacting my family. And I have to figure out how to take care of myself and my children through this because it is so harmful to everyone’s mental health in my home. I’m only at the school for short periods of time at drop off and pick up, and I feel really bad about being there. Like some sort of disbelief that this is our reality. I feel like I am a character in a dystopian movie, where everyone is fine with the way things are, and I am screaming (inside) just waiting for someone to acknowledge how wrong this all is. Am I alone in feeling like this? Or is it just that I have had so much intimate knowledge and experience with mental illness that I can see how traumatising these rules are when other people aren’t aware? Or is it that people just aren’t really talking about this? Maybe they are. I left social media a while ago, because I could see how it was having a very negative impact on my mental health.

But as I stood on the school grounds, I just got this feeling that I was alone in this – that everyone else was okay with it.

But maybe, like me, there were some other people screaming inside – “This just isn’t right”!

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