Managing the Back-to-School Madness

With every Old Navy ad, my anxiety grows. Here's how I'm handling it.

My daughters start first grade and kindergarten this year. My Facebook feed is filled with smiling children holding up signs stating the date and their upcoming grade. Every store I enter is filled with back-to-school displays. And every parenting magazine makes it seem like I need to have a monthlong plan to prepare for a very normal event – going back to school.

In response to this overload, my mind fills with all sorts of worries about the coming year: What if my 6-year-old doesn't like the new first grade teacher? What if my 5-year-old never actually learns the alphabet? What if we made a mistake sending them to such a small school? What if my daughter has another asthma attack in gym class? What if her sister won't eat the pizza on pizza Tuesdays? How will I ever stay sane sitting in traffic all the way across town twice each day?

If I'm not paying attention, these worries can dictate my whole day. Instead of focusing on my work, I find myself wandering the aisles of Staples and Target, buying spiral notebooks and pencil cases (which my daughters don't need yet) and wondering if I bought the wrong style of lunch box. 

I come home with plastic bags filled with pink t-shirts and soft cotton leggings for the girls, and a new cell phone case and pack of colorful gel pens for me – none of which we need. As I sort through the bags on the kitchen counter, I am acutely aware of how misguided this particular anxiety-management technique is. Rather than distracting me from my anxiety, it keeps me paralyzed in it. Plus, it's expensive.

My daughters don't need these items. They need me to be as calm as possible so I can help them manage their worries and fears. And I need to not spend the last few weeks before school blowing off deadlines and spending too much money because I can't get out of my own mind.

So I'm trying to do things a little differently. Here's my plan:

1. I'm letting myself be anxious. This might sound like the opposite of what I'm trying to accomplish, but that's the paradox of feelings: The more we try to outrun (or outspend) them, the stronger they get. But when we spend some time facing our feelings and sitting with them, we notice that they aren't as bad as we had anticipated, and they lessen with time. I've found that journaling helps a lot.

2. I'm being thoughtful about my thoughts. Some of them are useful. For instance, worrying about my daughter's asthma prompted me to get an extra inhaler from the pediatrician. In contrast, anxiety about whether my younger daughter will make friends at school is not particularly helpful. There's nothing I can do about that right now. So I try to notice those kinds of thoughts and then let them go. They come back from time to time, and I let them go again and again, often by distracting myself with a task I actually need to get done or by focusing on my breathing for a few seconds.

3. I'm going easy on myself. This parenting gig is harder than I could have ever imagined, and the start of each school year is so bittersweet. I am grateful to see my girls growing and thriving, but I find the passing of time sad and scary. Instead of berating myself for yet another unnecessary purchase or pint of ice cream, I try to remind myself that sending my daughters off to start a new school year can feel hard, and it's ok to struggle with the emotions that come up as we all get ready for the first day. Just because I'm not getting it all right doesn't mean I'm getting it all wrong, either.

4. I'm spending some quality time with my kids. Once the school year gets busy, our time together can easily be consumed with car rides to activities, bickering about school lunches, and nagging our way through bath time and bedtime. So we're spending as much time as we can reading and coloring and just being silly together now because we can. I also want to strengthen the habit of spending quality time together when it's easy, so we'll be more likely to do it when it gets harder.