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Beating The Back To School Blues

by Nancy Kirwan-Hayden

(Editor's note: The author, Nancy Kirwan-Hayden, is a  resident.)

As my first grader stood slumped over our stone wall, head in hands in despair, waiting for the school bus, I couldn’t help but empathize. The summer went by too fast. My kids are growing up too fast. He probably wasn’t worrying about that last part. 

He actually woke up happy on the first day of school, but after breakfast, as he got dressed and realized that his cool new sneakers with the obnoxious green migraine-inducing light-up sole had not somehow magically arrived overnight from the shoe store that had to order his size from another location, he lost it.  It was minutes before the bus was to arrive. I’m sure it wasn’t just the sneakers he was upset about.

Summer was over, he had a new teacher to get used to and none of his friends from last year were in his class. That’s a lot to take for a six year old. I wasn’t much help as I was holding back tears myself while trying to get him to smile for the perfect back to school photo. I didn’t get it. Just the photo of him slumped over the wall. It was more realistic.

I often wonder when will I stop getting so dramatic about the beginning of school? Or the end of school? Or my kids’ birthdays? Or baby teeth falling out? Or adult teeth growing in? Or how big he looks in braces? Why do I constantly and alternately long for my children’s independence, but pine for their dependence when they are more independent?

Since becoming a parent, I find I exist in a crazy-making state of ambivalence.  One moment it’s, “These kids are driving me nuts! I can’t wait until they are all in school full-time!”  And the next it’s, “Aww, they’re so cute, I hope they never grow up!” 

I remember holding my infants, gazing into their eyes, watching them explore their new worlds. They were amazing. So sweet and innocent. And boring. 

Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived, isolated, divorced from the real world mentality, I would dream about the day that these babies would get onto the school bus and I could go back to being my normal self, the person I was before I became a mom. And then, one day, they got on the schoolbus that first time and I would have done anything to shrink them back down to infant size. I now realize I will never go back to my “normal self." I’m a mom and these crazy thoughts will be with me forever.

This time of year is when parental ambivalence reaches a fever pitch. For one thing, back to school time is the ultimate measuring stick. That big kid standing at the bus stop with a new haircut (wow, somehow it makes him look taller), a lack of front teeth, and a much bigger backpack full of fresh school supplies...is that the same kid who seemed too little for kindergarten last year? The girl who doesn’t want to wear a new dress on the first day of school anymore and, besides, is old enough to pick out her own outfit—that can’t be your little girl!  One year they smile big for the camera, so excited. The next year they roll their eyes at you, so jaded.

On top of the emotional blow to the system, the start of the school year ushers in a dizzying blur of homework, sports and activities. The emails and paperwork pile up, you have to remember the dismissal notes (oops, I forgot...again!), oh, no, your carpool failed and now you have to go pick them up but you can’t fit everyone in your car! 

Then comes Halloween (let’s hope it doesn’t get snowed out this year), then the mad rush of the holidays, then comes second semester (how is it going by so fast?!). And before you know it, it’s the end of the year! Nooo! This was the best year ever! These were the greatest teachers, we’ll never have teachers like these again! I don’t want it to end! I’m not ready for summer to come! What will we do without school? 

Then comes the panic of finding the right camp, of coordinating your multiple kids’ schedules, trying to enjoy summer because it’s going too fast, and, suddenly, it’s back to school time again! And your kids are one year older. How did that happen?

I’m always wondering how to slow it all down. Are my kids too busy? Is that the problem? Should we cut down on activities? Or are we not using our time well enough? Should we be doing more? Are my kids missing out on something essential? Will they be negatively impacted for the rest of their lives because of my neglecting to sign them up for something or other right now? 

I spent weeks this summer wondering if my first grader should do soccer *and* baseball this fall. After a few seasons of tot and preschool soccer, he finally kind of liked it at the end of kindergarten soccer. At age four, he was good for a half hour of soccer (his games were an hour). His teammate were passing to each other and doing sliding kicks into the goal. My child would get a goal (on his own side) and celebrate, “Yay! I won!"  He was there primarily for the donuts. 

But by kindergarten fall soccer, he started kicking the ball in the opposing team’s goal instead of just whatever goal was closest. He wasn’t grasping the rest of the rules like many of his teammmates, but it was progress. But then he played T-ball in the spring and really liked that. Although I have an unofficial one-sport-per-season rule, I worried if he did just soccer and not baseball this fall, he’d fall way behind the other kids and, come spring, feel like he was bad at baseball and lose interest in it. And then I remembered that he was six-years-old and I was being ridiculous and we should just stick with soccer for now and worry about baseball in the spring.

I have fought many inclinations to sign them up for insane amounts of activities. I know the experts say that kids are overscheduled these days. I want them to have downtime. I don’t want to overwhelm them. Also, I don’t want to overwhelm myself. I have three children and I don’t want to be driving them all over tarnation to activities unless they really want to be there. I’m an affirmed non-Tiger mom, more like a housecat mom.

While I want to provide them with the skills to succeed (whatever that comes to mean for themselves) and teach them life skills, I’m a firm believer that kids should have fun. If they play sports, great, try your best and be a good teammate, but remember, we are not competing in the Olympics. I cringe when I hear other parents talk about little kids’ sports games with the seriousness of major league playoffs. 

A couple of years ago, I watched two dads go at it (verbally) on the sidelines of a first grade soccer game. Somebody knocked somebody over and one dad was yelling at the ref and then another dad starting yelling. Really, people. Of course somebody knocked somebody over...they're six-years-old! And, yeah, that’s great if Billy got a triple! But it’s great if he got tagged out on first base too. He’s outside running around. Yay! If my child wanted to train for the Olympics, sure, I’d support him, but otherwise, let’s keep things in perspective.

Of course, keeping things in perspective is easier said than done. It’s hard not to get caught up in the ultra-high expectations of modern parents. There aren’t many expectations in summer. But, now that school’s back in session and our kids are in the next grade up, expectations for their behavior and school work are higher. You’re another year older and you can’t act up on the bus anymore.  You can’t be so silly at lunch. You have to do your homework. All of it. By yourself. Without fighting. 

I have to remind myself to keep my expectations of my children in check. Look at his classmate, he’s so well-behaved, he does homework without a problem, he’s really good at lacrosse and he plays the guitar so beautifully. Good for him and good for his parents. But, this year, I will work on managing my expectations for my children (and me) based on what’s right for them (and us) and not worry about everything and everyone else. Childhood rushes by so fast, I don’t want to waste any precious time or mental energy focusing on things that are unimportant or irrelevant.

A teacher friend of mine told me it takes about six weeks for the kids and teachers to get used to the new year. I will give myself and my kids that time to get their/our bearings. I’ll do my best not to get too caught up in the craziness.  To appreciate the promise of a new year without expecting too much. I will appreciate my kids where they are now without mentally rushing things, idealizing the past or pushing them beyond what is necessary. I'll try to avoid excess worry, "What if he's right, what if he won't make any new friends this year?!" "What if his teacher IS really mean?" "What if he never learns to read?" "What if he can't find the bathroom?!"

I'll also try to avoid passing my unreasonable anxieties onto them. We’ll all try to live in and enjoy the present moment. We’ll do our best and hope for the best. Now, if you’ll excuse me while I slump over my stone wall. I just need a moment. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.

Deirdre Fletcher September 04, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Nancy -- I really enjoy reading your Opinion pieces! We seem to think alike and I appreciate how you can so effortlessly put it into words. Thanks for your thoughts... I'll keep reading!
Suzan September 04, 2012 at 03:27 PM
I'm so sad to be reminded of these blues for children. The school system is definitely not a system made for real children in mind. It's made for an ideal and a goal for adults. We'll pay the consequences for a generation of adults who are not fully who they can be because of missing out on crucial time to play, imagine and dream in childhood. Keep them home if you can. Homeschool if you can. Allow them to lead their education. Think of how many things you taught yourself. No child is going to get by not figuring out what's yellow and what's red or what the numbers are. Our culture is all around them. They always will learn!! And they will be happy.
Agnes Matczuk September 12, 2012 at 12:46 AM
So glad to know some other mom, can't get this "growing up pains" organized. I am behind every word you wrote. Great "back to school" summary. Thumbs up

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