I’ve had this experience since school started that I’m wondering if you can relate to. Our son Jake, five, goes to the town sanctioned after school program. The staff is three or four kind, tough women that make you feel like your kids are in the best of hands. Jake can stay there until 6pm which is a dream for working parents, but the real value to me is that it helps alleviate my parental guilt from struggling to fill the calendar with “play dates”, a phrase that I loathe and I’m not sure why. He loves being with other kids and they do such a nice job of mixing indoor and outdoor activities and setting up situations where kids can experience unstructured play.
Put some sporting goods and puzzles and toys out and watch what happens. Without any instruction and free from mind-melting screens, kids will break off into little groups and play games with agreed upon rules that they make up as they go. It’s magic.
The after school program is a ten minute drive. The drive can be a wonderful opportunity to switch off the never ending stream of podcasts and organize my mind. I’m getting ready for the 5pm to bedtime shift, the “closing shift”, like working at a pub. You rush around slinging sippy cups and bits of food and dealing with patrons until the place looks like a tornado hit it. Then it’s tub time, story time, and depositing the bodies into bed time. You catch your breath, flip the chairs upside down on the tables, wipe the bartop down, and kill the lights.
My thoughts ramp up as I make the drive. Do I have some things that I can easily pull together for dinner? Some mix of delicious, nostalgic food with a side of something healthy to smuggle into their bellies. Dinner time feels like a race. You’ve got to hustle to get something on the table so that you can take advantage of their hunger before they start snacking. If you say no to pirates booty and fruit snacks too many times before dinner you run the risk of them being too pissed off to eat. Like small angry customers who’ve been overserved.
“You can have some Doritos (“spicy chips” in our house) after some steak with mac and cheese.”
This seems to land better for Jake than, “NO. No snacks. You need to wait until after dinner.” As soon as he hears that version, I’ve lost him. I might as well just put the kiddie set of stairs up against the snack cupboard and let him do his thing. It might actually be nice to have a bouncer escort him from the premises when this happens.
Keeg is a different story at dinner. He only reliably likes blueberry flavored cheerios, pizza, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and apples. Even though he’s a 40 pound five year old, I still tuck him into the high chair that he’s used since he was a baby (he’s our autistic child if this is the first time reading about Keegan). If he’s not harnessed in while it’s dinner time, he will get up from the table after 8 seconds and leave a trail of mac and cheese and crushed pretzels from his plate to the stairs and into my bed.
After I make a right onto the street, I head down a long driveway that has a couple of those yellow pyramid speed bumps that are easy to steer around.
I roll past the lineup of tennis and pickleball courts that are filled with fit 45 year olds. The parking area just outside the fence looks like a Yukon Denali dealership. I pass the tennis courts and try to steal a peek at the playground equipment and the fenced-in play area. If the weather is decent, the kids are out there bouncing off each other and launching themselves off monkey bars. Sometimes they’re experimenting with sports equipment. Mini rackets and balls, or red rubber kickballs.
I crack my window and slow to idle speed. I’m listening for the high pitched squeals and shouts of “watch this” that drift my way from the group. Sometimes I can pick Jake’s little voice out of a choir of shouting kids. A quick glance back at the road to make sure I don’t steamroll anyone and then I’m scanning the kids again. I’m looking for Jake. Do you ever have this deep urge to spy on your little kids? I’m trying to see what kind of kid he is when he’s with other people. Is he kind? Is he engaged? Did he inherit the same angst that I feel in groups? I hope not.
I sign for my child and get him loaded into his booster seat. He always starts clamoring for his lunch box and mini water bottle with his name on it. He’s starving and thirsty. Good indicators of a successful session. I let him polish off the leftovers of a snack or two as we head home and pray that he’ll still want whatever I can expedite out of the kitchen.
It’s so easy to drift towards thoughts of everything that might happen tomorrow or slip into a quick email check for the eighth time this hour while working the closing shift, but writing this stuff down helps open me up to be available for the pure moments that happen during the exhausting death march of packing lunches and waiting for school buses.
If you landed here from instagram or someone forwarded this to you, I’d love to have you on the list. I send a couple of these out each month.
For you its actually “closing shift” when the rest of the staff has called in sick. The exhaustion comes from you needling to be both the Mom and the Dad so to speak. I can relate to the hustle, looking back. I called it “treadmill”. Maybe try to be one at a time per night-just a thought. Glad you can still find the ability to bask in the pleasures too.