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Tuesday Afternoon. One Week Before School Starts

By Alison MacNeil


I catch myself in the three-way mirror outside The Gap dressing room where my 12 year-old daughter is trying on back-to-school clothes. ‘Who is this woman?’ I wonder as I roll my shoulders back and suck in my stomach. ‘When did I become the grown-up? I look tired,’ I think to myself, ‘School starts in a week … almost to the finish line.’

Why is the summer so long?

When I drop my daughter at school and ask the obligatory “how was your summer?” questions, many moms say “It went by too fast!” I absolutely don’t get that. I’m mad my kids are home for so long in the summer that I get burned out and bitchy. It’s not fair to them or me.

I never wanted to be such a hands-on parent.

I wanted to be the ‘eat a peck of dirt in a lifetime’ parent. I believe in letting children entertain themselves, make up their own games, pretend, get lost in a book, get a little bored and push through it to create something new. I am a proud under-scheduler.

“We’re bored.”

“It’s my turn on the iPad.”

“What are we doing today?”

These whiny sentences are like nails on a chalk board for me.
tuesday-afternoon1My daughter said to me this summer, “If you don’t want to play with us, then why did you have children?” My answer was simple:

“When I was growing up, parents didn’t entertain their children.”

My feelings aren’t nearly that straightforward. And I don’t spend a lot of time letting go of the parent I thought I’d be. I don’t have that luxury. I carry guilt for several reasons.

First and foremost, my son has autism and if you leave him alone for too long he kind of fades into the couch. He needs lots of stimulation and structure.

Second, I’m old enough to have gone through painful fertility struggles with some dear friends who want nothing more than a child to entertain.

And, finally, my under-scheduling stance flies in the face of the parenting that surrounds me. The kids in my community travel from activity to playdate to enrichment class every day of the week. My daughter thinks I’m weird that we don’t do this.

I live a few blocks from Harvard University. Over the years I’ve often walked across campus on Freshman Move-In Day and peered into the eyes of the moms dropping their kids off at college. I saw pride, a bit of apprehension, and a sentimental look, which I read as ‘How did we get here so fast?’ I got a lump in my throat as I imagined their return home to a child’s empty bedroom.

How can a Tuesday afternoon can drag on forever and the years speed past so quickly?

These college moms remind me of Anna Quindlen and my own mother who repeatedly said to me over the years, “I know this is a long day, but you are going to miss this down the road.” These experienced moms want me to enjoy this moment with my young children. But what if I’m not? What if this moment sucks? What if all I want this afternoon is a fast forward button?

Are they forgetting the times when money was tight, the sibling fights, and the endless requests for cups of water?

We are in a trickier situation than some families. My son Nick may not leave home. We hope he will be able to have a meaningful, independent life, and we work towards that all the time. But his may not be the same launching that parents do with a typical child.

In fact, I am still grieving his toddlerhood, which I never experienced because he was so sick and in so much pain. I’m also sentimental about the time I didn’t spend fussing over my daughter’s milestones because her brother’s needs were so great.

If I’m sad now, I’ll be a puddle when I drop my daughter off at college.

Walking across Harvard’s campus, I study the students. Very bright and hardworking, I’m sure. I can’t help but wonder what this over-scheduled race to the top has cost them emotionally.

Did they take a breath during high school? Did they build a sense of independence and responsibility, or did mom always fetch the forgotten notebook or lunch? Did they learn to be a trusted friend, laugh so hard soda came out of their noses? Did they make mistakes, dance with joy, or goof off at all? Can you goof off for a second and still get into Harvard?

There isn’t a beer can in sight on Harvard’s campus these days.

I’m not saying there is a world of wisdom to be found in a keg of beer. But I did a lot of growing up in high school and college, and a good part of it had nothing to do with academics.

These kids worry me a little. They look a bit like drones, as if they haven’t been given the space to develop themselves into whole beings.

In four years, will these Harvard freshman have the resilience they will desperately need for the world they are entering? Will they be able to entertain themselves? Will they blame others for their boredom? Will they have the emotional breadth to manage the adversities life may hand them?

What if life hands them an autistic child?

I never gave this a moment’s thought when I was pregnant. However, this is a likely scenario for quite a few of this graduating class, given our nation’s staggering autism statistics. Will these over-scheduled, hard-working, bright young things have the inner resources to get through one interminable afternoon after another?

This all brings me back to Tuesday afternoon, one week before school. My kids are squabbling over the iPad. We’re all craving a little more structure. And I continue to grapple with my deep wish to nurture resilient,  emotionally healthy children in a world that seems hell bent on teaching them the necessity of outsourcing that happiness.

Alison MacNeil secretly counts down the summer days until the start of school like an Advent Calendar before Christmas.


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