I hear footsteps on the stairs. It’s earlier than expected for my son to be awake. I wait for an excited face to round the corner and greet me for the school day, but my four-year-old walks quietly towards me and folds into my outstretched arms instead.
“I don’t feel good,” he whispers.
The dreaded, I don’t feel good.
My immediate instinct is to route the conversation in the other direction quickly. Comments about it being a school day and “you’re fine” swirl through my head. My husband has already left for work. I’m preparing for a busy day as well. The way he’s resting his head on my chest like he used to do when he was a baby, makes me pause. He doesn’t do that anymore. He’s too busy at this age.
He doesn’t feel warm. I round through the typical ailments, no stomach ache, no headache, no sore throat. I mentally cycle through my day, which is always flexible, because I want nothing more than to spend the day with him. I can feel something more important than preschool, work obligations, or to-do lists at this moment. I squeeze him a little tighter and decide that he will just stay home with me today.
An instant change in his mood makes me second guess my decision. Did I just get fooled by a preschooler? Flashes of my future with a high school student pop into my head. But, my mood changed instantly as well. Our lives have been so busy in this season. There’s freedom in taking control of my day and deciding we will spend it together.
Our morning moves on through a bike ride and walk on the canal. We make a muffin and coffee stop. We chat and throw leaves and rocks into the canal, guessing and testing which ones will float. We spend the entire time outside together.
I cancel an afternoon obligation, jokingly asking a colleague, “do four-year-olds get to take mental health days?”
“Yes, definitely!” she proclaims.
And I realize that’s what he meant when he said he didn’t feel good. He wasn’t lying. He just doesn’t have all the words yet to explain that the feeling wasn’t physical. There was no sore throat or stomach ache, just the need to take a break and a step back. To slow down and spend time with me, to be outdoors, to be off schedule.
I make a mental note to remember my instincts the next time. If a four-year-old can begin to recognize he needs a mental health day, I know more are in my future with an elementary or middle schooler. I make a mental promise to my son that I’ll honor his feelings, no matter how busy my schedule seems for the day, because a mental health day is just as important as a physical health day, especially as kids get older.
I wave back at a happy preschooler whose two hands are waving at me from the top of the jungle gym. Muffin crumbs on his face, surrounded by sunshine and fresh air. He looks like he’s feeling just fine now.