For all families, September is often an incredibly stressful time and especially when you have children. For military families, there are some added complexities. If you were posted, your children might have a ton of anxiety about starting a new daycare or school, making friends, being welcomed and accepted, etc. If you are remaining where you are, the anxiety levels can often be the same as friends have moved, new students are coming in, teachers or care providers change, etc.
Who do these little ones take out all their stresses, fears, and frustrations on? You – the ones they love the most. Of course, they are unable to see that YOU may also be stressed and struggling as well. Then there is the added stress when someone in the military thinks September is an excellent time to get into the full swing of things with extended hours, an exercise or training course. The next thing you know your co-pilot is away and the person you can eye roll with, complain to or count on to help and support you is away, leaving you and your children with at least a little resentment on top of anxiety and stress. It is always the perfect storm.
I would love to tell you that I have all the answers or a magical solution that makes the return to school a piece of cake – I don’t. Being an educator and a parent you would think that many of these things came naturally to me, they didn’t. It has taken me nearly 10 years to get to a place where I am able to imagine surviving past Halloween.
My husband has been away for eight out of the 10 school start-ups! I now operate like he will be absent or unavailable and then consider it a real bonus if he here to help. I remind myself that it isn’t by choice and move on. My first piece of advice is not to take operational decisions personally. Military family members often ask questions like, “Do they know the school year calendar?” or “Did they do this on purpose?” I am certain there aren’t many senior staff that spend a whole lot of time analyzing the school year calendar and, truly, they can’t. It isn’t personal and don’t waste valuable time and energy on being angry about it.
Be organized and be early. One year I thought I would avoid the ‘back to school’ shopping completely until school had started. I believed I would know what they really need and not spend money working from a list that probably wasn’t even generated by their own teacher! Not my best idea. While I probably did save a bit of money as things were on sale, I spent more on gas driving from place to place. I also believe my time is valuable too. Waiting until school had started meant there wasn’t the selection and in some cases there wasn’t anything left that my kids needed.
I found myself in a Walmart with other disorganized parents (or parents like me thinking they were being smart) staring into empty bins and checking phones to see if there were other stores in the area that might be open and have the items in stock. I have so little ‘extra’ time that I decided (after having to go to two Walmart locations and three other stores) that I would buy early and keep my receipts! Each year we now go out a month before school starts and get what is listed. The stores are less crowded (don’t go on a rainy day though), everything you need is at one place and you also reduce your kids anxiety as they now believe they are prepared (is anyone ever prepared for the return to reality?) and ready to go.
Plan a month of meals ahead of time. I know that this sounds boring, but it reduces the stress of thinking what is for dinner, saves money at a time when you are having to spend more and makes meal times easier for everyone. For the entire month of August, I usually cook twice what I need with any meal that can be properly frozen and defrosted. This allows me to have at least a month of meals in the freezer for the back to school madness. On rainy days throughout the summer I will often do some baking too so that there are muffins and squares that are easy to grab out of the freezer.
Eat at least one meal a day as a family together so that you can re-connect. Talking about your day, hearing about theirs will bring down anxiety and stress levels. When you are able to take a complete time out from the madness and just talk to each other you will all get a chance to remember what is really important – each other. We ask questions that everyone at the table has to answer, choose not to answer and you do dishes. Doing dishes is a real motivator, and the questions are designed so that they can’t be answered with a yes or no.
“What was the funniest thing that happened to you today?
What was the worst part of your day?
What was the best part of your day?
What was the most annoying thing that happened to you today?”
They get conversations started, and you hear about their struggles and triumphs.
Go into the school(s) and introduce yourself to staff, don’t be afraid to ask questions or share information that will help them best support your child. Ensure that they have the correct contact information for you, are aware any medical or academic needs of your child, that they know about absent or deployed family members, find out what is the best way to communicate with them and how they will be communicating with you too. If you can offer up any volunteer time, let the staff know this too. Most schools are always looking for parents to help out with activities and initiatives.
Opportunity vs. Challenge
Lastly, some of the best things that ever happened to me happened because of change. If you are heading into the fall with changes and challenges try to look at them as opportunities and adventures this outlook will rub off on your family members too and, ultimately, make life much easier for everyone. It will not all run smoothly (in life, it rarely does) but some of my fondness memories are not of when things all went according to plan but when they were a complete disaster, and we laughed through it and learned from it.