Back To The Back-To-School Grind

It's 9:30 p.m. and lights out for The PhD after I've inspected his ears and questioned him extensively about the thoroughness of his shower.

"Did you wash your hair?"


I sniff. "Did you wash your hair?"

"Alright! I forgot!"

"But I called into you while you were in the shower to say remember to wash your hair."

"I know, but I got distracted. I was thinking about other things."

He's almost thirteen years old so, I decide to let go that line of interrogation.

"Sigh! Good night," I said. And he lets me kiss him good night.

I go into my room to set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. (I'll come back to that later), and Thirteen is eating chocolate chip mint out of the container as prelude to her nightly shower and as prologue to my having told her, in so many words, to CTFD.

Well, not in so many words. In those exact words.

And so begins the grind of Back-To-School at our house.

She Can Press Her Own Pleats

Question: how can one be stressed out about a math problem before the first day of school?

"I can't figure it out!" Thirteen screeched. "I should have known this in eighth grade. I don't want to be the stupid kid in class!"

"What are you talking about?"

"This math problem!"

And she screeched at me some more because, don't you know, the world was coming to an end. 

"Look at me, " I said, "because I don't want to say this too loud."

She huffed, spun around, and rolled her eyes all at once.

"Calm the f&#! down, " I stage whispered.

She tried to hold back a metallic and pink elastic grin.

"I'm serious, Mom!"

"So am I."

Certainly, I could have chosen more age appropriate language to communicate the same thing, but I had to nip this in the bud. This is just the beginning of the year and we have a long way to go. Besides, isn't that PG-13?

I used to readily follow her into these tightly wound spirals, with the appropriate amount of righteous indignation, always ready to co-sign for her teen angst. My teeth would sit on edge, I'd toss and turn at night worrying about how she would survive this latest onslaught. I'd send out a frantic call on social media for the mom corps to weigh in. I'd call my mother and sister and agonize over this latest challenge to my child's self-esteem. I'd strategize some deep breathing and visualizations, an excellent hot cocoa for breakfast,* and I'd iron her uniform for her. Yeah, really pamper her into a super first day of school.

Not any more.

She can press her own pleats.

Life In The Back-To-School Grind

My sanity from now until June relies heavily on that hour between the time my alarm rattles me out of my slumber and the time I hustle the kids out of bed, or they stumble out into the day all on their own. I need that time alone with a cup of coffee, the morning paper, my favorite morning news gang, and my own thoughts. It's the proverbial quiet before the storm.

So even though I've never been a morning person, I set my alarm for 5 a.m. during the school year. No decent adolescent or teen worth their salt is up at that hour-- one of the perks of having older kids-- and I am left alone to ponder the meaning of life.

For me, the meaning of life generally starts with a cup of coffee, sitting in my spot on the sofa, and ends with a glass of wine to bring it on home at the end of the day. In between, I earn a living, feel the sun on my face, get to sing along to my favorite songs on the radio, and get a thanks mom from time to time. If I'm lucky. Oh, and I pour in a heaping cupful of friends and family, faith, and kindness. If I'm staying mindful.

Life in the back-to-school grind is something else. It's variations, day to day, of get your shoe's let's go let's go and is he getting enough fruits and vegetables. Did you wash your face and no one is bullying you, right? You're going to whose house after school? More coffee and not enough hours in the day and soon enough SATs and how was school today and what's for dinner and I give them the look because I've been so through with answering that question since, like, 2007.

Life in the back-to-school grind is a set of big, brown eyes peering over a cereal bowl at dawn, and the heater on a gray, chilly morning that just feels wrong because it's going to be 80 degrees later. Life in the back-to-school grind is parent meetings, pretending I'm really excited to be at another back-to-school night, and looking at the other moms and wondering how they do it. How do they keep it all together and look so calm, sophisticated, and well-groomed? (And understanding that the other moms are looking around at other moms, too, and likely wondering the same thing.) It's keeping my mouth shut before I find I've volunteered myself for something or other, and hoarding poster board because, otherwise, the day will come when one of the kids will have a project due tomorrow, but won't tell me until the last minute and I'll have to dash out to Target and, hopefully, I've gotten the heads up before I've had my bring it on home glass of wine.

And life in the back-to-school grind is reminding myself on a daily basis that this is all just one long phase. It shall pass. It shall pass all too soon and I fully appreciate that. But, in the meantime, I just need that hour with my coffee. Please and thank you. (Woe unto the child that's excited about a field trip, or fell asleep before supper so wakes up too early and sits in my spot. "What are you doing here?" I'll want to know. Keep in mind that the response, "I live here," will not suffice.)

The back-to-school grind always brings a little of the unexpected, too. Like melancholy. Back to school reminds me, more than anything, that time is moving along as it should. The little boy who used to fit perfectly behind the bend of my knees for a nap now has these long, seemingly unmanageable limbs and broadening shoulders. He's got a little shadow over his lip that I continue to insist only requires a bit of soap and water, and his voice foreshadows what I'll hear over the phone from someplace far away in the not too distant future. And, are you kidding me?! Seventh grade!

The little girl that let go of my hand on her first day of Head Start and never looked back is researching colleges, writing for a feminist magazine her classmate started, and wants to get her nose pierced. She spent the whole summer working outside of Chicago. Might as well have been on Mars. Still, I remember the panic attack narrowly averted on her first day of fifth grade. I was standing in line at the school uniform shop and I thought, "Oh, no! Next year, she'll be in middle school!" My heart stopped. Now... are you kidding me? She's in tenth grade and I. Can't. Even!

Back to school grind becomes back to school blues. 

They both still let me give them a kiss before they get on the bus. A kiss, a love ya have a good day. I know that's not a given for kids their age, so I'm grateful. At the same time, I'm hyper-aware these days that every time I watch them step onto the bus, they are stepping a bit closer to being more grown up. I've always understood that this was going to happen; really, I'm looking forward to sending them off into the world because I think they're going to do some really neat things, but I must admit I thought I might be able to renegotiate a few terms before the contract period was up. Like an extended period during which a kiss where it hurts is all it takes to make their world right. Or a few more gazes that make me feel like the sun, and the earth, and the moon all at once instead of just mom. Or, how about working into the deal that you can go away, but not too far. A day's drive, give or take, would certainly work for me.

And what do you know about that? Suddenly, the grind is totally doable.

A Bonus

*Here's my tip for excellent instant hot cocoa that no one will think is instant. (After all, who has time to stand over the stove.) A package of the powder mix, 3/4 cup hot water, 1/4 milk, and a dash of vanilla. No marshmallows needed, the kids can drink it right away without burning their tongues, and you'll be the hot cocoa queen.  Good for snow days, or for your average back-to-school blues.