Scrolling through Instagram after I dropped my daughter off at school for the first time this school year, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d done something terribly wrong: I didn’t make a sign. But it also made me ask: Who are we doing them for?

young girl holding chalkboard that reads " Does This Sign Give You Mom-Guilt?"
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Adobe Stock (1); Getty Images (2)

As I rounded the corner to drop off my daughter at her nursery school 3s program for the first time this fall, I noticed something was a little different. On your average morning drop-off, parents are seen scrambling to stash water bottles in cubbies, while divesting themselves of tots and tote-bags. Today, the cameras were out. Parents weren’t negotiating goodbyes so much as photo angles and backdrops. 

I, of course, was one of them. I knew the importance of locking this day into the annals of history to live on forever in my Instagram feed. So I posed, pleaded for my daughter to look at the camera as she stood outside of school, inside her classroom, in my arms. Made sure the angle was right for me, too, of course—mama’s gotta look good in these photos, too. But most of all, I couldn’t help but notice how hard it was to get a good picture no matter my best efforts.

That fraught moment when you’re dropping your kid off for the first time at school puts your multitasking skills to the test, to say the least. There are forms to fill in, other parents' names to remember, other children to reorient your child with, Ziploc bags with changes of clothes to stow and, of course, separation anxiety to contend with. It’s a whirlwind that’s over in a flash, and if you got any decent photos, you can count yourself lucky. 

When I’d finished snapping photos, filled in all the forms, dropped off everything required, and finally said goodbye to my nursery schooler, I breathed a sigh of relief. We did it! She was officially out of my hands and into the very capable ones of her teacher.

I jumped on the train to work and uploaded the best shot I could get, and it was adorable. I managed one where we were both, somehow, looking at the camera. I posted it. Mission accomplished.

Later, when I scrolled through Instagram, I certainly felt less alone. It truly felt like everyone I knew was dropping their child off at school at the exact moment I was, but something made my stomach drop. Almost every photo featured letterboard signs, posters or flags, neatly outlining the kiddo’s name, their class, grade and something uniquely quirky about them. (Shout out to my mom-friend, Megan, whose daughter's sign read “I Promise to Only Sing Lizzo in Mom’s Car”.) They were all adorable. But I didn’t have one.

The mom guilt hit fast and furiously: Did I not do enough to capture this important moment that comes only once a year? Should I have woken up half-an-hour earlier to delicately arrange letters on a board? I quickly shut down this moment of self-doubt. I’d shown up, hadn’t I? Even when it was technically her dad’s morning to drop her off. And so what if I hadn’t, like the plenty of moms and dads who had to be at work, outsourcing the drop-off to other caregivers? I’m dipping my hand deep in my pockets to send her to school in the first place, a privilege so many littles throughout the world don’t have, right? Did the fact that I didn’t have a sign make one bit of difference to her? Nope. Could I shake the feeling I didn’t do enough? Also nope.

It wasn’t until I got a text from her grandmother, who picked her up after the short first day, saying her teacher told her my daughter was the most outgoing and bubbly she’d ever seen her. That’s when I realized I’d done OK as a mom, sign or not. And no, I didn’t need a social media account to tell me that.

Julia Dennison is the executive editor of She co-parents her now 4-year-old daughter Esme (and her pughuahua Fergie). Follow her at @JuliaDennison.