This week the kids went back to school after our beautifully long winter break, and I’m drowning in silence. I miss them. It’s hard, after the house has been full of joy, laughter, giggling, dancing, cooking, eating, playing, and snuggling, to go back to days of quiet solitude. Not everyone feels this way. My Facebook feed today is full of posts from friends who are overjoyed that winter break is over, the kids have gone back to school, and their schedules will now all go back to normal.
I get it. Vacation time can be disruptive, even for a stay-at-home-mom-writer like me. I haven’t touched my novel since early November. My desk has a bunch of old paperwork, a sewing kit, piles of notes, and about twelve books on it. My pantry looks like it’s been ransacked by raccoons. My refrigerator still contains Christmas leftovers. I can barely enter my home office because it’s full of stuff that had to be moved out of the way for Christmas decorations.*
And these are just little blips. In families where both parents work outside the home, I can only imagine how chaotic school vacations must be. Even when I worked teaching college writing, I always had the same vacation time as my children. For those who work outside of the academic world, school vacation brings its own special level of stress—finding people to care for the kids, or short camps to bring them to for a few days; dealing with an out-of-routine schedule, with different drop-off and pick-up times; figuring out meals and transportation and all those things that kids can’t handle on their own. And those are only the things I’ve heard about from friends who are in my socio-economic class and can afford child care outside of school. I’m sure there are many more struggles others face that I cannot even begin to comprehend.
Yet, no matter whom I talk to, or what they do (stay at home, work from home, work outside the home) I have come to realize that there are two kinds of parents: the kind that can’t wait for their kids to go back to school, and the kind that mourns the end of school vacation. Both types of parents are lovely people who fiercely love their children and want what’s best for them. Both types of parents work hard to provide an amazing life for their families. Both types of parents are wonderful caregivers.
Some parents, however, have happier family lives when they spend some time away from their kids—and when their kids spend time away from them. They don’t enjoy dancing around with their kids; they’d rather go cycling. They don’t enjoy children’s television . . . okay, I don’t know many people that DO enjoy children’s television. Some of us, however, can find things in it that are not utterly brain-numbing (like Eddie Murphy’s Donkey in Shrek and Mushu in Mulan. His jokes saved my sanity more than once when I was raising the girls). I understand those who can’t, however, and who don’t want to. They don’t enjoy playing games with their kids—and yes, I know “Candyland” can get old really fast—they’d rather read a book.
These are not condemnations or judgements. There is no law that says we have to enjoy what our kids enjoy, or that our kids have to enjoy what we enjoy. And in families where interests are disparate, I can understand everyone’s desire to just get back to their individual spaces. Kids miss their school friends; parents miss their work structure. Kids miss their sports meets; parents miss their time to focus on tasks at hand. And indeed, the days between Christmas and New Year’s do feel like an endless muddle of hours where time blurs and no one even knows what day it is.
This can be great for some, and torture for others. My husband, who works a rather high-pressure job and has done so for over 25 years now, loves those middle-days where he loses track of time and day and date and doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t absolutely want to do. So does my younger daughter. They, honestly, played video games through our vacation. In the living room. All day. After two days, my older daughter looked at me and said, “If I don’t get out of the house tomorrow, I think I’m going to go crazy.” So we went to see Cats. It did nothing to curb our insanity, but it gave us new stuff to talk about.
My husband and younger daughter, however, were in their glory. Sitting in the house all day? Not having to interact with other human beings? They were all-in. It was a beautiful escape for them. My older daughter and I escaped, too, but just not in the same way. She and I went to see three movies over winter break. We have the same tastes, and had a really wonderful time together connecting over the uncanny valley-ness of the Cats animation, the flashback-style narrative of Little Women, and the hilarious, compelling, and beautiful Frozen II.
And I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most—the times of connection. Whether spending hours at the theater and discussing stories the whole way home, having tea together at noon, or watching the girls play Just Dance while I’m making dinner, those things don’t happen when the kids are in school. It’s not just my sense of connection that suffers—it’s theirs, too. Even now, when everyone is home, the girls are in their rooms doing homework. They’re not playing games together, or laughing at some meme or YouTube video that only makes sense to them. They have disparate interests, they’re working so hard, and their schedules are so busy, that the chances we’ll even have more than five family meals together a week are slim—much less time to have tea or dance or laugh. And I know I’m lucky that I can say five. There are families, once school and sports start up, that feel fortunate to have one.
I have to remind myself, however, that just because I’m connecting with my family a little less doesn’t mean a loss of connection. Instead, I can view it as a chance for all of us to make new connections that will end up enriching our home lives. My older daughter will reconnect with her school and musical theater friends—and she’ll have the best stories. My younger daughter will reconnect with her academic friends, and come home every day with a new and interesting question about English, or Latin, or Algebra. My husband will reconnect with colleagues and those he serves, and he’ll share the wisdom gleaned by his experiences with all of us.
And I won’t sit still for long. I can’t. By mid-week I’ll be back at school, volunteering. I’ll see friends and other moms and school staff I genuinely care for and I haven’t seen in a while. I’ll write in a way I haven’t gotten to in some time, and that will help me make connections with a world beyond my family and immediate community. We’ll all connect with the world of knowledge by working on schoolwork, reading up on new developments in our fields, or simply taking some downtime write in a journal and reconnect with our inner selves.
This time away from home, and from each other, will take us all out of our overly-comfortable zone, and that will make us better, stronger people. It will also give us lots to talk about, stories to tell, problems to figure out. There is power to the question, “How was your day?” when the answer is something other than, “You were here with me the entire time. What can I tell you that you don’t already know?” When we’re always together, we never have a chance to stand on our own. If we never left home, we’d never have a chance to become members of the wider world. We’d end up being less compassionate, less understanding, and less wise.
So, as much as it grieves me to see this quiet holiday time end, I can forsee joy in once again becoming members of the great, wide world. This was a wonderful vacation, a time of true retreat and togetherness, and now it’s time to take the peace and rest and love and connection our family has built together at home and bring its fruits to the rest of the world.
*Yes, my Christmas decorations are still up. They stay up and on until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, and technically Christmas season doesn’t end until we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism, which for us is this Sunday but for others can be as late as Candlemas on February 2nd. It wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t have at least a little Catholic fact, would it?).