Have you noticed her? The “back-to-school parent”? You might recognize her by the intensity with which she hangs on her child’s every word while walking to the bus stop or in the way she enthusiastically skips down the block with her kid. Perhaps, if her child is older, you might identify the back-to-school parent with the way she asks in detail about all his homework assignments or by her concern over whether the school supplies she bought in Staples all color coordinate. If you are sitting with her at dinnertime, you would note that the back-to-school parent tries to sit with each of her children while they eat dinner, even though that means sitting at the kitchen table for the 5pm seating, the 6pm seating and the 7:30 seating. And at those meals, the back-to-school parent shoots rapid-fire questions at her children so as to signify her interest in the details of their lives. The back-to-school parent does not have her phone at the kitchen table nor does she pull it out while sitting with her 12-year-old as he learns to commute to school.
I can recognize the back-to-school parent because this week, I am the living embodiment of her. I have suspended all regularly scheduled programming in order to be 100% present for my children. I remember when the concept of “being present” was so new to me that I would whip it out at every family gathering as my goal for the coming year, feeling very profound as I spoke the words. However, “I need to be more present” is now a clichéd yoke that hangs around my neck as I schlepp grocery bags, soccer backpacks and sports equipment from place to place. Do I actually want to be more present during those moments of utter banality? Perhaps being somewhere else while my kids are whining, my back is hurting and my shirt is soaked with sweat isn’t such a bad idea? But seriously, the intention of being present with my children is still a valuable one, even though it often means sitting through a lot of not-so-special moments.
As a prime example of the back-to-school parent, I am like a wind up toy of parental good intentions. I am around for school drop-offs and pick-ups; I make my kids’ favorite foods; I postpone my work obligations. I ask lots of both specific and open-ended questions as I have been trained to do by 16 years of parenting. I am also exhausted – even too tired to watch mindless TV at night. My cheeks hurt from smiling encouragingly at my children all day. My apartment looks like a Modell’s exploded with sports gear and backpacks flung to the far corners. I crawl into bed at night with barely a sideways glance at my husband. I really hope my kids are having a good start to the school year, but please tell me that being a back-to-school parent ends soon.
Did I forget to mention that the back-to-school parent is also endangered? Pretty soon, she will disappear from the streets and living rooms of America. You won’t see her listening intently to her child’s recitation of what he ate for lunch that day. You won’t observe her closely following the convoluted rules of her daughter’s game at recess. You won’t catch her focused on her son’s description of his teacher’s grading injustices. Pretty soon, as the weather starts to cool, new sneakers are scuffed and school supplies get lost, the back-to-school parent will go the way of the unicorn. She will be replaced in the kitchens and doctors offices of our great nation with the “shit-gets-real” parent. That species of parent is recognizable by her exasperation with her son’s glacial shoe-tying or impatience with her daughter’s seemingly endless stories. Perhaps the shit-gets-real parent will be spotted shouting at her son for his pile of dirty laundry behind the bathroom door or identifiable by her profanity-filled fury at yet another lost water bottle. Most of all, the shit-gets-real parent will be noticeable because she is looking at her phone while she walks down the street with her kids or while she sits with them at the dinner table or while she watches their soccer games. The reality is that between the months of October and May, 99% of us are the shit-gets-real parents. The true test is NOT how we support our kids in the first few days of the school year, but in how we sustain that support for them during the following 9 months. The trick is knowing that the back-to-school parent is unsustainable, but also in believing that the shit-gets-real parent could maybe do a little better than last year. Maybe we could take some tips from the back-to-school parent before she disappears for another year?