Life transitions don’t typically happen overnight. Your ticket might say you have arrived, but the emotional work of adjustment does not have a time and date.
Back to school can be a particularly trying time because of its ability surface, in one concentrated week or two, all the many ways parenthood can both fill us with pleasure and wear us down. It can be so exciting to see a brand new school year begin. Yet, if you’re feeling a little unsteady in this period of transition, you’d hardly be alone.
The back to school period, like childbirth (or any major life transition) is a liminal one. This means that for a while, we sit in the ‘in between’, straddling two life phases. One foot in the old world, one foot in the new.
It can be exciting. We are marking a new life phase and a new accomplishment, both for our children and for ourselves. Yet in the midst of so much anticipation and hope, things can also feel a little unknown. And downright raw.
Welcome to the what we call the ‘borderlands’ of motherhood. Those periods of transition where the promise of your destination awaits, but your passport still needs to be stamped, the guards don’t smile, you’re a little homesick, and your luggage might be missing. You’re travelling forward. But you haven’t arrived just yet.
This time of year, many of us find ourselves in a brief - but trying - part of these borderlands: The ‘back to school’ weeks. While you’re there, here’s what you might find:
Tough Feelings: Parenthood can make us joyful. It can also make us worried, anxious, frustrated and sad, depending on the day and what we are managing. The new school year is filled with possibilities for these feelings. We can worry about how our children will make friends or get along with their teachers. We can worry we haven’t remembered all of the crucial calendar dates. We can be frustrated our children won’t wake up on time. We can be a little sad to see them move on, one step closer to the fantastic, grown people they promise to become.
That little goodbye at the school gate can feel every bit as emotional as the day they arrived into the world. In an instant, they, and you, are in a new life stage. The awe and intensity of that realisation can make the most steely of us a little less so.
Sleep Disturbance and Fatigue: Back to school brings with it a change in rest patterns. The low key schedules of school holidays are over. You might be staying up later than usual trying to get clothes and lunches packed. You might be up earlier trying to set the stage for your new school year routine. You might not be sleeping very well at all given all of the worries that a new school year can bring.
And then there is the physical and emotional strain of trying to adjust to so many new roles, activities and responsibilities. Yes, your children are the ones completing the activities. But you are the one making sure they get there, get back, and get everything done. This work takes it toll.
Relationship Stress: For many reasons, the work of raising children can stress your relationship with your partner. These fault lines can come into vivid color during the back to school period.
It’s possible your partner shares in the many to-do’s a school year brings. It’s also possible that they don’t. It’s possible your partner does not see eye to eye with you on the school your child will attend, the routines you adhere to, or the priorities you each place on activities. It’s possible they don’t share the same worries, concerns or frustrations you do with specific aspects of the school experience. You are two different human beings. The possibilities for different worldviews are infinite. So are the stresses and disagreements these differences can introduce.
Financial Strain: Kids are expensive. Especially this time of year. Whether you are paying a hefty tuition bill or handing over large sums for new school supplies, clothes and after school activities, this time of year can be pricey. Its no secret that bills can also impact all the factors discussed above. Worry, lost sleep, and relationship stress can all stem from uncertainty or disagreements over money. Education costs a lot. So, it seems, does everything else these days. It can be especially hard this time of year to feel like things are balanced financially.
Mourning the loss of the old: With all new beginnings must come a goodbye. A goodbye to the old year. A goodbye to the smaller clothes. A goodbye to the sweet artwork of last year. And with goodbyes can come sadness. Completely normal sadness. When we lose something we have held dear, like an old identity, old role, or old relationship, we can feel grief. You might miss the warmth of last year’s teacher. You might miss the nurturing embrace of a school for younger children. You or your child might be missing old friends.
The years that have led up to this point may have been wonderful ones. Even if they weren’t particularly notable saying goodbye to them can bring a twinge of regret. With a new school year, we have to leave one life stage and step into the next one. While hello’s can be exciting, it can be harder to relish a farewell.
Losing support networks: On the subject of loss, one change that can be felt acutely this time of year is the loss of a prior support or care-giving arrangement. Many families have care-giving arrangements for their children that are designed to end when school begins. This means that a human being who provided support and love to your family moves on to another employment arrangement. The intersection between care, love, and finances can feel stark this time of year.
“The village” is a bona fide requirement for parenting. Today, with so many families living away from extended support networks, early childhood caregivers can become a vital part of the village we create. They listen to our stories, provide perspective and wisdom, and reassure us that things will be just fine. Sure, your children are adjusting to their days away from you at school. But you, too, can be adjusting to your new days away from your own sense of support. Having to say goodbye to people who have provided such essential care and friendship to our families is not easy.
Culture Shock: Make no mistake, a school is a living terrain unto itself. It may as well have a geographical border. It will have its own, unspoken ‘way’ of doing things. It will have a social order, which lives and breathes in both in the parents and the students. It has a culture all its own. And, if you are new, the learning curve can be both steep and surprisingly difficult to acclimate to in the beginning.
Culture shock is a well-documented response in travellers that occurs when one must adjust to a new culture quickly. It can manifest itself in many ways, but principally take its toll on the emotional health of the newcomer. Not understanding the invisible ‘rules’ of a new place can feel disorienting, confusing, and downright exhausting.
Your notably social brain does not like its familiar rules to change up. Don’t be surprised if it puts up a fight and you feel a little lonely, tired or down for a while. Your brain has a lot of new learning to do. Things should feel better eventually.
If any of the above this rings true, giving yourself enough space, time and self-acceptance to acknowledge the impact on your wellbeing is important. Motherhood’s borderlands are real. We all travel through them. Yet this doesn’t mean we can’t do everything we can to travel a little more comfortably.
Expertise: With a new year, comes new list of never-before-seen hurdles you must work through. Having to feel like we don’t really know what we are doing (again!!) can be disheartening. Especially when we see so many veteran parents at the school gate making it all look so easy. Remember, not a single parent out there was given an instruction manual. The only difference between you and the parent who seems to have it all together is practice.
Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Mess up. Experiment. Try again. And then keep trying. Pay attention to the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself as you do get better at practically anything you want to get better at.
Connection: Remember those new mama friends you couldn’t have lived without after your baby was born? Birth was a borderland time and they acted as your fellow travellers.
In the back to school version, you need these relationships again, yet this time with parents of school-age children. These relationships will serve the same powerful purpose as those early motherhood friendships. They will help you make sense of the world. They will provide some comic relief. They will offer a sense of shelter and belonging in the midst of unknown terrain.
For mothers, friendships are big magic, and big medicine. By taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance in these times of transition. It’s not a vanity. Its crucial. Keep trying to find a kindred spirit ot two.
Outlook: If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook.
A new school, or a new year, can be filled with uncertainty. When the brain feels unsure, it can be tempting to withdraw into scepticism or weariness. Yet a new school year is also filled with possibilities. There are rewarding new relationships that have yet to be made for both you and your child. There are as yet untapped wonders, challenges, joys, curiosities and accomplishments to look forward to.
Remember that the borderlands are only the beginning, They look nothing like the green and pleasant land ahead. When you feel unsure or negative, remind yourself to try and take in the full picture (of both the strains and the possibilities) as you make up your mind about today.
There’s so much possibility on the horizon. Welcome to the new school year and its promise. You’ll be a seasoned traveller before you know it.
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Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.