The Back-to-School Scaries

Our society is set up around the detached-from-reality assumption that there’s always a parent around to drop everything at a moment's notice.

The Back-to-School Scaries
Photo by Elijah Ekdahl / Unsplash

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This is the first week back for traditional calendar public schools here in Durham, NC, and I’m reflecting on this time of year when the tectonic plates of summer challenges crash into school year hurdles. I’m coming to understand that one is not necessarily easier than the other, they are just changing details around the same systemic failures. Our society is set up around the detached-from-reality assumption that there’s always a parent around to supervise, coordinate, chauffeur, enrich, and drop everything at a moment's notice to fill in the gaps. That doesn’t ever change with the seasons.

As I get into the groove of our family’s school year with a google calendar that already looks like rainbow vomit, I’m reminded of the quote Anya Kamenetz shared a few weeks ago: “priorities are like hands. If you say you have more than two, you're either lying or you're crazy.” I’m taking this mantra into the new school year, which will mean setting boundaries around my family’s time, saying no to a fair number of things, and remembering what our society considers “normal” is actually way too much most of the time.

A few weeks ago, I asked Double Shifters in our members-only thread how they were feeling about back to school, and it was a lively, relatable thread. In the interest of promoting solidarity during this time of year, I’m sharing a few highlights (some slightly edited) from the comments, with permission.

From Double Shift Member Alexandra, whose comment received a ton of head nods and amens from the community:

“I am feeling both super ready for school to start back up, and super stressed!! After a summer of limping by week after week, with shifting start times and dropoff locations as the camps change, I am really looking forward to just doing the same thing week after week for a good amount of time. And I'm staring down the late-August gauntlet after camps end but before school starts, of course, where it's just like, "May the odds be ever in your favor."

I don’t know if the pandemic left me lagging or what, but I was not prepared for how busy life can be with elementary-age kids. There’s so much for them to do and so little independence for them to do it! Right now I am planning out our standard weekly schedule for the school year and it’s so overwhelming - which days they stay at after-school care, which days they do school-based after-school activities (separate from after-school care), which days they do the non-school activities they badly want to do. Two activities each builds a totally crazy week. I feel like I spend so much of my life turning things down and saying no, and yet somehow we ended up becoming your stereotypical over-scheduled family anyway. Here I am, checking June 2024 to make sure that the ballet recital doesn’t interfere with the group camping trip.

I am also going through the school-year calendar trying to pre-book all the things I badly want to make happen, because now I know that I will get steam-rolled if I try to plan it as it comes. I feel like last year was my first non-pandemic year of parenting actual kids – no babies, no toddlers – like, when Covid hit I had 0 kids in elementary school and last year I had 2, and it really slammed me and now I’m ready for it. So if I really want to take my kids on a cross-country skiing foray in the Adirondacks sometime, I have to pick the days and book the cabin NOW or I won’t do it. We really want to go to x museum and never end up doing it? I’m picking which random school holiday we’ll do that on NOW, and putting it on the calendar. I am trying to be super mindful of which no-school days I want to make into outings, and which I want to find childcare for – and arrange both EARLY so I don’t feel like I’m trying to outrun an avalanche all year long.

And I just got an email about “early bird sign-up rates” for summer camp 2024. I may have deleted that one out of rage.”

From Double Shifter Diana:

I am looking forward to the routine and predictable hours of school and after care (except for all those random days off) versus the crazy week by week arrangements and short hours of summer camps. The last 2 weeks before school starts will be the hardest with no reasonable camp options in our area. But it’ll also be the last weeks to soak up memories with my kids (while trying to hold down a full-time job)!

From Double Shift Member A:

“I cannot wait for both kids to be back in school (2nd grader starts on Aug. 28 and PK3 starts on Sept. 5). Why they start at different times despite both being public schools, I don't know! I thought that because last summer was such a hot (literally) mess of working too many nights due to untenable camp hours, I'd just work part-time this summer. But it was SO MUCH WORSE. By the time I dropped the younger one off at 9 and walked home in the heat and cooled off and took a shower and cleaned up the morning mess and took a shower, it was maybe 10:30. Then I'd have to leave to pick up the older one (who is autistic and simply can't do aftercare) by 2:30. And if I had an appointment or needed groceries, I didn't get any work done. I feel like I thought I would have more quality time with the kids, but it just felt awful. On the few days I was able to get into a groove with work, I felt so much better emotionally. I feel like I spent the summer just being interrupted and sitting in terrible carpool lines. I am so beyond ready for my older kid with extra needs to have a regular schedule and spend the days with people who understand her; teenage counselors can be great, but they cannot give her the predictability and support that an experienced teacher can. So, I am ending the summer resentful that my husband got to carry on with his professional life, mad that I didn't make more progress with my work projects and frustrated that camp was so hard for my older kid. I have no idea what I'll do next summer. “

[Ed note: Is there anything worse than carpool lines??????]

From Double Shifter Lisa:

Reading these comments makes me feel just a little less crazy, a good reminder that my care issues are not my own personal issues but the result of a totally broken system. We have this narrative that we're totally on our own from ages 0-5, which totally sucks, but if you can afford the care, yes you can for the most part get care that covers the workday and a good chunk of the summer. I too was counting down the months 'til my older two got to public school thinking I'd be home free! Then I realized we couldn't afford aftercare for both (now that we have a 3rd in FT daycare), and oh wow now they have homework and after school activities and SO MANY school related logistics to figure out, not to mention the jigsaw puzzle (and significant expense!) that is summer care. My older 2 boys have ADHD so it can be extra challenging managing them all after school, so I end my workday early and finish in the evenings leaving me little to zero free time.

While all of these comments are extremely valid, I’m excited to end this on a positive note from Emma:

“I am feeling empowered because I, and a small group of parents, have just successfully fought our local authority's ill-considered and, most probably, improper (in that they didn't follow due process) decision to axe funding providing 1:1 support for children with additional needs to attend after school clubs along with their peers. The decision, which parents only learned about two weeks before the new school year starts, would have meant that we needed to quit our jobs, because our children cannot attend the clubs without this support. The Council attempted to push it through without anyone noticing, but they miscalculated badly. It has been an incredibly stressful ten days, but the silver lining has been forming a close-knit group of parents who are passionate about ensuring our children are not overlooked.

The next challenge will be ensuring that my son is also supported in primary school itself, as cuts have reduced support staff there, too. I have to confess that I envy the parents who are worrying about "normal" things like whether they have got the right school uniform... However, I know that we have this group of allies on our side.

Good work Emma!!

I hope reading these comments make you feel less alone about back-to-school challenges. Solidarity forever!

In this week's member's only thread I want to hear from you all: What’s the best thing you’ve said “No” to lately? A draining work event? A trip with your in-laws? An expensive, time-consuming extracurricular for your kid?  

If you enjoyed these comments, consider becoming a member of The Double Shift where you’ll get weekly members-only threads, full of thoughtful comments and great insights. Membership starts at $7/mo.


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