Back to School Guilt
My kids have brand new shiny sneakers that fit perfectly. I’ve scoured Wal-mart for the precise yellow, 3-prong binder listed on the back to school list. I’ve happily bought all the tissues and hand sanitizer the teachers requested. It’s that time of year again: Back to School.
Some seasoned parents treat the first day of school as a celebration. They have braved the summer months with crazy kids, and now they are ready for their well-earned break. They laugh with glee at the idea of sending their kids off for 7 glorious hours of school. The houses will regain some semblance of order and cleanliness. There will now be time for the gym and coffee dates. They have looked forward to this time since the second day of summer break, when the kids were already whining of boredom and demanding an unreasonable number of snacks. The mommas will gather their girlfriends to celebrate, sip mimosas and take funny pictures and videos to post on Facebook.
The night before school starts, moms of kindergartners will be reading a carefully chosen story about how fun school will be. They will pray aloud for a good night's rest for their child, for kind friends and a loving teacher, as mom chokes back tears and kisses her kid’s chubby cheeks. Mom will pack a healthy lunch and write a sweet note on the napkin. She will double-check that the perfect first day of school outfit is laid out, and maybe pull out the iron for the first time in months. Then, the tears will flow with freedom once everyone is asleep. She will look back at baby pictures and wonder where those precious days went. She will worry that her child isn’t prepared. Did she read to them enough? Did she allow too much screen time? Did she make the right school choice? Is her baby even ready to start school? She puts her emotions on the backburner and settles in for a restless night of sleep. Everyone will wake up early to a beautiful breakfast and they will take perfectly curated pictures with a homemade First Day of Kindergarten sign. The little one will walk into the new class, find their seat and wave goodbye. Mom will stare at the clock all day, counting down the minutes until she can pick her now-big-kid up and hear every detail of their first day.
I have been both of these moms, but this year I find myself in a new category – a category of doubt and guilt. Only a couple of short months ago we were counting down the days to the start of summer break. We spent family dinners talking about the stress-free days that were on the horizon. We made big plans for fun activities, day trips, and memories that would last forever. Summer is the best, and this year we would make the most of it.
As often happens, reality fell short of our expectations. Sure, there were good times and laughter. We stayed up late catching fireflies in mason jars. We made cookies and had movie marathons. We played in the sprinkler and surprised dad with a water balloon ambush. We built forts, had pillow fights, and made lots of art projects. But, we also had a fair share of stressful days that didn’t go as planned.
A day that was supposed to be spent having cannonball contests at the pool was dramatically called to a halt by me shoving everyone in the van like a lunatic when the kids refused to stop running around the pool – after being warned no less than a bajillion times. An afternoon that was supposed to be spent making glitter slime was cancelled because the kids were even messier than normal, and I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Our trip to get frozen yogurt was cut short because my children were screaming like wild hyenas when one of them was “touching” the other. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but that was my worst parenting day yet. I went to sleep with a sore throat from yelling. What kind of monster could possibly yell at her kid’s that much? It’s humiliating and not who I want my children’s mother to be. What if these are the memories now etched in their little minds forever?
What if our hours spent building sand castles together are forgotten? When they think back on this summer beach vacation, will they remember mom complaining about having to haul all the chairs and buckets and toys and coolers and bags through the hot sand? What if, instead of remembering how excited they were to read the first Harry Potter book with their daddy, they remember me nagging dad to help with the dishes instead of reading with kids tonight? What if, instead of them remembering me cuddling beside them in bed and asking them about their highs and lows of the day, they remember me zoning out on the couch while staring at my phone?
I know exactly how I want their childhood to look. But, once again, my expectations have proved unrealistic and left me frazzled and disappointed. Life has shown itself to be tougher than I thought it would be. My feelings of frustration and stress have been impossible to keep tucked away from my family. Surely there is still time? My oldest kid has 9 more summers for me to claim that precious real estate in her memories. We have 9 more summers to follow through with plans, to stop chasing the idea of perfection, and to enjoy each other.
Our dinner conversation has recently been filled with excitement and plans for the perfect school year. A fresh start! This will be our year to get it right! This will be the year we get through homework without frustrating each other. We will have healthy breakfasts and wake up early enough to not have to rush in order to make it to school on time. This year, my son will find where he fits in. He will learn the value of hard work and consistency. He will control his mouth and stop getting into so much trouble. I won’t worry every time my phone rings that the school is calling to inform me that my son has talked in class one too many times, and today he has found himself in the principal’s office. This is a phase, and surely he has matured out of it. He is growing into a respectful young man who follows the rules. This school year, he will finally shine!
This year, my daughter will make amazing friends. The kind of friends she will still be close to in college. She has heard my advice, and will be careful in choosing to hang out with people who share her values and encourage her to be a better a person. She will steer clear of mean girls, stay out of the drama, and she will not succumb to peer pressure. We will have sleepovers, and playdates, and they will lie awake belly laughing until the early morning. They will create inside jokes that will be shared for years to come. This is her year!
This year, my little one will learn to love school. I bet he and his teacher will really hit it off. Maybe, when he is an adult, he will look back and remember this year’s teacher as his very favorite. She will create a life-long learner out of him. He will become a confident reader, and it will open up a whole new world for him. He will write in his journal every night, and we will do family devotions together. His sweet, sensitive spirit will be filled with all of the quality time he receives at school and at home. I am positive that this year will be his most formative year yet!
I think these thoughts, knowing full well they won’t come completely to fruition. By October, my kids will be shoving stale cereal in their face as I yell for them to hurry up or they will be late. I will threaten of what will happen if one more jacket is lost at school. I will complain of dirty bedrooms and unorganized notebooks. We will deal with old issues and will likely be introduced to a new set of problems. Before we know it, the novelty of school will have fallen away and, once again, we will be counting down the days to summer break. God knows I will fall short of giving my kids all I want for them. At this point, my kids probably know this as well.
Try as I may, I will never be the cool mom who lets things roll off her shoulders. I will never be the one who laughs at the huge mess. I am the one who loses her temper, and then immediately regrets it. Maybe one day, I will get it right. And if not, that's okay, too. I want my kids to remember a mom who falls down and gets back up. One who fails miserably, but keeps trying. It’s okay if they remember a messy mom who doesn’t have it all together, as long as they remember a mom who loved them with all she had. I want them to remember a house full of grace and second chances. It’s okay if they remember me completely losing my cool, as long as they remember my sincere apology that came in the morning, followed by me trying my best to do better. To be better. Imperfect people raising imperfect people.
I am the one who makes the biggest plans and feels the biggest feelings when my plans don’t work out. But, I am going to keep planning big and keep feeling big. Our kids will have plenty of good times to look back on with nostalgia, and, unfortunately, they will also probably have lots of junk to talk over with their therapist. But, we keep going. Our work is too important to let our mistakes win. Our bad days don’t define us. I bet even the late great Mother Teresa would blow her top every now and then if she ever had to deal with my crazy crew!