It’s back to school time. I know this because I am now officially late. To everything. Even publishing this post. I know lots of parents everywhere are rejoicing at the return of school. And I can’t say I’m sorry to see summer go. As a working mama, it’s financially exhausting to pay more than half your salary so you can have a job. But now I feel as though I’ve traded one kind of exhaustion for another. The kind that keeps you up all night making color-coded schedules and packing wholesome lunches.
This year, we’re facing the herculean task of putting one child in middle school and the other in kindergarten. I feel like Atlas straddling two worlds, trying to keep our lives whole, suspended by the strength of my sheer, stubborn will. And like any parent, I suffer through sleepless nights, wondering if I’ve made the right decisions. The one that puts my child’s needs ahead of my own fears and ambitions. Choices that didn’t come from the specter of anxiety that sits on my shoulder and whispers doubts into the hesitant curve of my ear.
I am always overwhelmed by the frantic, frazzled pace of big transitions like these. And I know what I feel is just a fraction of the sensation kids get buried under when they go to a new school. I know because I was that kid. I attended ten different public and private schools before the age of 17. Some places I never stayed long enough for anyone to learn my name. I was the new girl. Always on my way to somewhere else.
Before you start feeling too sorry for me, I'll confess that I feel glad for that experience. It taught me something powerful. It's a lesson I try to instill into my kids at the start of every school year. I remind them to look around at all the chaos and uncertainty and remember one thing.
Everyone is as nervous as you are. Unsure and painfully vulnerable.
All of us.
The trick is that we respond to this discomfort differently. Some kids get quiet and shy, curling in on themselves. Others get loud and boisterous, seeking attention to fill the hole that anxiety has suddenly opened in the pit of their stomach. There are kids who respond with defensiveness, growing aggressive or seeking to exercise power so they can feel some measure of control.
I remind my kids not to drown in their own distress in times like these. I encourage them to look up and pay attention. To really see the new boy, sitting alone at a lunch table and trying to make himself small to hide his embarrassment. I tell them that if they peer hard enough, they’ll see the fear behind the taunt from the girl on the playground. The best way to step beyond our own crippling, self-conscious anxiety is to act with compassion. When I throw a lifeline out to others, it makes my own insecurities seem less significant. I encourage my kids to take a seat next to someone who is alone, to throw their arms about misfits and outcasts and declare them friends.
Because the secret is this. We’re all bluffing. Each of us feels lost and inadequate and overwhelmed. As an adult, once you gain some measure of control over your life, this sense of isolation recedes a bit. But it never leaves completely. And the people in my life I have been so grateful for were the ones who saw past my defensiveness and reached out with a smile and an outstretched hand.
As my kids head back to school and the awkwardness of those first moments ease, I want them to look around and see the kid afraid to make eye contact, the one whose hands are clenched tightly in misery. Maybe in that kid they’ll recognize themselves and extend the kindness they want desperately for themselves. I hope these days of nervous anticipation teach them the importance of compassion and that it has the power to lift us beyond ourselves.
If you have a child in your life who is overwhelmed and lost right now, let them hear this encouragement loud and clear. Even the biggest of kids feel small sometimes. We're all in this together.
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