Why “Back to School” Is Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Back in 1996, before I had kids, I always got a chuckle watching that Staples TV commercial featuring a happy-go-lucky dad skipping through the store buying back-to-school supplies for his two glum kids. Adding to my amusement, an upbeat pitchman joyfully proclaimed in a voiceover, “They’re going BACK!” as that holiday classic, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” played in the background on the store’s Muzak channel. Cue to the frolicking dad doing pirouettes around his shopping cart.

Now that I’m the parent of two teenage boys, the realization that the first day of school is fast approaching doesn’t feel so wonderful to me. Maybe family life was different twenty years ago, but parenting in 2015 seems a much more fast-paced affair. One of the differences is no doubt the fact that I’m a parent, but it also feels as if kids–and as a consequence their parents–are leading more hectic, disjointed, and stressful lives than ever before. Let me give you a few examples.

My older son is starting his junior year in high school. The college search process begins for him in earnest, as does the pressure to get good grades, ace SAT tests, and distinguish himself from the legions of other qualified high school students trying to get into the same universities. On top of the academic pressure, he’ll have sports practice every evening after school, followed by a rushed dinner and hours of homework.

As for my younger son, he begins his first year of high school. His homework load will double, and grades will now really mean something. On top of the academic challenges, he’ll have to navigate the social world of high school and make new friends.

So what will all this mean for my wife and me?

Gone are the leisurely mornings of summer, replaced by the reveille rush of getting the kids up, fed, organized, and out the door in time for class. I already long for those July mornings when all I had to worry about was getting myself fed and dressed. Or sip my coffee and read the paper in a quiet kitchen while the boys sacked in ’til noon.

And relaxed evenings? Forget it. Instead of a family meal on the deck eating barbecue off the grill, I’ll be sneaking in a quick bite between picking kids up from soccer games, calling out practice test questions, or proofreading essays. When I’m not the family chauffeur or tutor, I’ll be the bad cop on the block, policing screen time so that the boys don’t waste their evenings sending pics on Instagram.

But individually, the hectic days are nothing compared to the overall stress. Nerves are frayed worrying about good grades, making the varsity team, whether the kids are too consumed with their social lives, or not serious enough about their studies. Not to mention having your son announce at eleven o’clock in the evening that the deadline for that big history assignment he’d forgotten about is tomorrow morning and he needs your help!

And did I mention my high school junior just got his learner’s permit? Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much about having to chauffer his friends and him around!

So how do I prepare myself mentally for the start of school, when the metabolism of our lives suddenly skyrockets with the ring of that first school bell? I offer myself the same advice I give to my kids when they’re stressed or can’t get to sleep.

First, take a deep breath . . . and remember, it’s only life. Or, as my wife has been telling me since our kids were born, it’s no longer about us.

Second, practice visualization exercises. I’ll imagine life after the kids have launched when I’m padding around the house feeling bored and purposeless. I’ll look back on my kids’ crazy-hazy high school days and miss the flux, the buzz, and the excitement of raising two teenage boys. (Okay, I know, I’m actually going to feel liberated and rested for once, but this is only a make-believe-exercise to help me get through the here-and-now.)

Finally, to complete my calming meditation, I’ll picture myself on a sunny beach, sitting in a lounge chair, slowly nodding off to the sounds of surf and seagulls. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll remind myself . . . the summer of 2016 is only six months away!