As the first day of school approaches at the end of every summer, parents, including myself, inevitably start making back to school relief jokes. Finally, a chance for a semi-clean house and break from the sibling bickering! For all my previous summers of parenthood, the start of school came with anticipation and a deep sigh of relief. This year, though, it was different.
As a college professor, I am fortunate to have a choice that the vast majority of working parents do not: Do I stay home with my children this summer? Most summers, the cost of childcare has tipped the scales to yes, so I teach a few online courses from home. This has led to exasperation at the oxymoron of working from home and a longing for the sanctity of my office at work. How on earth do parents stay home full time and maintain their sanity?
Last school year was a blur. On top of our usual packed schedule of school, sports, volunteering, and extras, we sold our house, moved in with my in-laws, built our new house, and moved in, all before my final grades were submitted.
This was easily the highest level of crazy I have ever experienced in my decade of parenting. It also resulted in my absolute worst parenting performance. Full confession: I pretty much sucked at my mom gig. I forgot to check my kids’ homework and never even met Mateo’s teachers at the Intermediate School. I attended minimal school events and was consistently late completing paperwork. I rushed bedtime rituals and dinner conversations, just to move on to complete the next task on my eternal “To Do” list.
I pride myself on not letting my personal life affect my professional one. In the classroom, I strive to be upbeat and leave all my baggage at the door. I am confident in my abilities as an educator and generally love my job: coworkers and students alike. By the end of Spring 2019 semester, I was barely hanging on and nearly lost my grip when an anonymous student submitted a complaint full of outright lies. Normally, I would have been able to brush it off as a hazard of the job, but the stress of last school year skewed my perspective. I was left sobbing in my office, ready to find a new career over one lying, disgruntled student.
Luckily, I have some truly incredible coworkers, family, and friends whose support kept me afloat. Peter, my rock, kept me moving forward at home. Most of all, though, my resilient and independent children stayed their amazing selves, despite my lackluster performance in the mom department.
This past summer could not have arrived soon enough. Submitting my final grades felt like reaching the finish line at a marathon: mentally and physically drained, I collapsed and was ready to recover and refuel.
Summer 2019 was powered by gratitude instead of apprehension, which transformed the experience. As summer ends, I’m grateful, not for the first day of school and break from my kids, but for the three months that allowed me to recharge and reconnect with them. This summer’s lessons came as I allowed myself to decompress and my children to lead the way.
- There is something to be said for pushing back bedtime and turning off the alarm clock: Since Mateo was born, our life has been run by schedules. Desperate for sleep and working alternating schedules to relieve childcare costs, Pete and I depended upon a strictly regulated schedule for our son. While this relaxed some as Lucy arrived and the kids grew older, bedtime is still a necessary component of our family function. The early mornings of the school year require this practice, but this summer, we let bedtimes slide more often than not. We allowed our body clocks, birds, and sunshine to wake us. At first, I felt guilty and lazy. How much time did we waste when we could be doing “stuff”? As the circles under my eyes disappeared and the pressure on my chest receded, the guilt did as well.
- Summer adventures come in all shapes and sizes: Travel always sits atop my bucket list. Unfortunately, the budget constraints of building a new house and a ridiculously expensive driveway erased the option of a full summer vacation. While I was initially disappointed, this left room for us to focus on creating opportunity for mini-adventures closer to home. We started with Lucy’s school bucket list and built from there: Bike rides, thunderstorm watching, mastering the monkey bars, baseball games, roller coasters, and climbing waterfalls. Even watching our ridiculously expensive driveway being poured served as entertainment for a day. Sometimes the high expectations of an extravagant vacation can lead to disappointment when the kids would just rather hang out with their friends in the backyard. Now eventually, I’m sure we will plan some big adventures, but it was actually very satisfying (and economical) to find adventure a little closer to home.
- A full house is a happy house, as long as we can deal with the temporary messes: The more kids, the merrier at Casa de Herrera. My children fight less and are more creative with their activities when friends are around. Of course, more children always results in more crumbs, spills, and muddy footprints. However, the pros of a house full of energy and giggles outweighs the prospect of more cleaning later.
- Truly listening to our children is the best gift we can give and get: “Mom, are you listening to me?” The truth is that very often I’m not. I’m notorious for getting lost inside my own head and tuning out my children’s chatter. This summer, I made a concerted effort to tune in and started a foundation for communication that I hope can last.
- Saying “yes” is a powerful parenting tool for growth: For many exhausted parents, the knee-jerk reaction to our children’s requests is often “no or maybe or not right now or let me think about it.” This summer, I surprised myself and my children with one word, “Yes” We made slime, pulled the roller skates out of the basement, learned to play tennis, and gained confidence and independence in the process. Good parents need to know how to say no, of course, but saying yes can be just as important.
- Teach them housework now, so you know they can do it later: Summers at home mean more work at home. More meals to prepare, more dishes to do, more laundry to wash and fold, more dirt tracked in on the floor, and toilets needing cleaned with more frequency. “What did you do all day?” Pete has learned that this is a perilous question that is highly likely to result in a significant explosion. In the past, housework was just easier and quicker if I did it. This summer, we tried something new. Initially teaching took some time, but by the end of the summer Mateo makes a mean fruit salad, Lucy offers to wash dishes, we all share laundry folding duties, and yes, they take turns cleaning their toilet. Progress.
- Front porches are magic: When Pete and I decided to build our home, a big beautiful front porch was on the top of our “must have” list and our decision has not disappointed. The tv rarely turned on and our family gravitated to the porch each evening instead. We relaxed in rocking chairs our parents and grandparents once rocked us in, watched squirrels skitter over the tree branches and listened to a multitude of bird calls that I have not yet learned to identify. We waved at the regulars walking on the path at the park below and let the steady breeze push the stress of the day away for a while. Oh and porch cocktails are definitely one of my favorite things.
As the school year begins, our chaotic life has returned. My dining table is covered with handouts from school, bills to pay, and paperwork to complete. We get home from school, finish homework, rush to practice, eat dinner, and then repeat. Bedtime is back and I’m up bright and early at 6:30 am every morning. My workload is quickly snowballing as the semester moves forward and there never seems to be enough time in my day to cross off all the items on my“To Do” list.
I’m grateful for a return to structure and the excitement of a new school year, but don’t feel the same relief from the stress of being home with the kids that I used to. Of course the kids bickered and of course they exasperated me, and of course this summer wasn’t all warm fuzzies and rainbows, but the difference this summer was my approach to it. We let the summer unfold and took advantage of the time it provided.
Every day when Mateo and Lucia return home from school, the first thing I do is hug them and tell them I missed them, because I actually did. My babies are growing into these incredible little humans and this summer, I grew with them. I know that in a few years they won’t want to spend time with me and will be off with their friends, asserting their independence, too cool to hang out with Mom. For now, though, I’m going to take my summer lessons with me into the whirlwind of the school year and try to hold on to them and my kids for as long as I can.