What do we call Back to School this year?

Back to double-the-work? Back to juggling our own changing work environments while teaching our kids or being their project managers? Back to feeling lucky if you get 5 minutes to yourself in the whole day, probably in the shower?

A lot of moms are stressing out about the beginning of school, perhaps more than their kids are. We are all remembering what it was like last spring, with our kids suddenly being home full time and everyone making quick pivots regarding school responsibilities while having to manage our own changes. There was no such thing as an “easy” kid during this. Younger ones required that we became their teachers and older ones struggled with social isolation or independent time management.

I spoke with my dear friend, Malia Brandt, who is a parent, works full time as a Youth Education Program Coordinator at the University of Minnesota and is a private Orton-Gillingham tutor for kids with reading disabilities. I asked her about her insight for parents on making this all work.

First of all, I want to acknowledge how hard this is. Even for someone with as large of a toolset as Malia, when asked about advice for moms dealing with the feeling of overwhelm her first answer was “Aaarrrgghh! I wish I knew!” There really is no perfect answer and I think it is important for everyone to give each other grace.

Having said that, I’ll share a few ideas that came out of our discussion in case they resonate with you as well.

  • Place a priority on mental health for you, your kids and your relationship with them.
  • Ask for help. As women, we’ve been taught in both subtle and overt ways that we are valued for what we give and that we should be grateful for what we receive. This makes asking for help more difficult. But if you are not the only parent and you are feeling overwhelmed, you have the option of reducing what you are taking on. Talk with your partner, or if you are parenting across households, talk to the other parent, about dividing up responsibilities for the kids in a more equitable way. It is more helpful to assign each parent entire categories, not just assigning tasks. How about suggesting that you be the one who is allowed to do less for the kids for a while so you can catch up on work? (Crazy, right?) It is OK for you to have a turn to prioritize your career. Especially if you are the one who took a hit while the kids were little.
  • Women sometimes find themselves in the position of being in charge of the family’s emotional well-being. While I hope we are raising our boys to do this differently, we still face cultural expectations of emotionally supporting men in our relationships with them, and it is still common for men to not be expected to contribute to and give emotionally to the family to the same extent. When one person is being relied upon as the go-to person for the kids and her partner, to listen, empathize and help process emotions, this job is an exhausting position. Many women then also play this role with parents, siblings, friends and even sometimes on the job, to a larger extent than their male counterparts. This can narrow your bandwidth for other aspects of your life. If this is you, when making a list of jobs you are each responsible for, LIST THIS. Acknowledge this is a big job. Even if your partner is envious that you are the one the kids want to talk to when things are rough, the reality is that you end up dropping things that may be important to you in order to be there for them, and it takes time and self-care to recover.
  • Say “no” to things. Instead of feeling badly about your performance on the many things you are juggling, choose less and gain focus. This is the time to be protective of your capacity.
  • Get the kids more involved in choosing and working towards their school related goals. Not only will this take pressure off of you, but the kids will gain important life skills. Your relationship (see the first tip) will also benefit because you can step away from nagging.

    Malia’s tip on this is to have a conversation with your kids at the beginning of each quarter to ask them how you can support them. They may need prompting for that, so you can ask questions like, “Do you like it when I…” or “Would you like help for…” Going a step beyond, you could also have the kids set their goals. Ask them how they would know if they are reaching their goals. This could be grades but doesn’t have to be.

    Another great question Malia suggested asking the kids is, “How will I know if you’ve gone off the rails and need extra support?” and try to make that a clear definitive answer, so you know when to step in, and when to let them continue to work on their own problems. With this structure, you can then attach privileges to the attainment of their goals.

Some of you reading this are not in this position. You may be feeling that there is not much you can do to help while in lockdown. What you can do is understand, offer grace, help colleagues at work or call your loved ones and offer a listening ear.

Us moms face an incredible pressure to do it all and do it all well. I’m here cheering you on to focus. Do less. Build in time for yourself. At the very least, know that you are not in this alone.