On the first day of kindergarten, Sarah O'Toole walked eagerly into a new classroom at Buckhorn Elementary School.
But it was all just too much for her. Soon, she was standing in the hallway sobbing.
Less distraught: her 5-year-old daughter, still in the kindergarten classroom.
"Honestly," O'Toole said, accepting a hug from the principal and a tissue from another parent, "I don't know what I'm going to do with myself."
Red-eyed and slightly sheepish, the 35-year-old mother of two shared her story Tuesday with dozens of parents over coffee and Kleenex. Some were tearful, and others joyous, to let go of their children's hands on the first day of school.
"It's a big emotional time for mommies," said Wendy Lauber, Buckhorn PTA vice president of fundraising. She said she sees fewer daddies cry, but some still made their way to the breakfast gathering.
Across Hillsborough County, PTAs threw "boo-hoo breakfasts" to help parents with the transition into the new school year.
"We promise to return them in the same shape, if not better," Buckhorn principal Tamara Brooks said reassuringly.
It was a day to fight back tears of joy or nostalgia. Without their kids in tow, many parents hid behind tight smiles, the corners of their mouths betraying their sadness.
The lucky ones wore brighter smiles, happy to send their children off and chuckling sympathetically toward those who fared worse.
"It was a blessing," Valrico mom Jean Weatherford, 48, said calmly. Her 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, loves school, she said. That excitement made it easier for Weatherford to dispatch Hannah to her third grade class.
But few parents in the room could keep from wiping their eyes. Everyone could relate to tales of the time when their children embarked on a new school year — even the second-time kindergarten moms, like O'Toole, or moms years beyond the kindergarten days.
PTA mom Lauber shared the story of the time her embarrassed son said, "Mommy, you're not going to cry, are you?"
"No!" Lauber said she answered as she bolted from the classroom and tried not to lie.
PTA president Barbie White confessed to taking photos through the classroom windows after dropping her first child off at kindergarten years ago.
It's bittersweet, explained Valrico mom Antoinette Whidden, 43, to separate from children after spending so much time with them in their younger years or over the summer.
But being away from kids lets moms find themselves: "You cherish this time that they are in school," Whidden said. "It kind of gives you a little bit more grounding."
Still, the tears-and-cheers parents anticipated blotchy faces and runny makeup for at least the first week of kindergarten. Then they'll be fine, until the first day of first grade.
Don't even bring up the first day of middle school. Or the first day of high school, let alone college.
"She won't need me as much," mom Shannon Norwood speculated sadly. "There won't be as many hugs."
On Monday night, before school started, Norwood lost sleep over her daughter's first day of kindergarten.
Will she be okay? Will she fit in?
Pre-K did not prepare Norwood for this.
Five-year-old Savanna had talked excitedly about new friends and the playground. But in the classroom, both mother and daughter had first-day jitters.
Norwood, 26, took some photos and got a hug. Okay, a few hugs. And a kiss.
Then, absorbed in the novelty of kindergarten, Savanna seemed to forget her mom was still there.
"I said bye," Norwood said. "She didn't even hear me."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.