As May comes to a close, we’re hurtling toward the end of the school year and all the madness it contains. There are field trips and three field days, teacher appreciation activities, fundraisers, school fun fairs, wacky hair day, pajama day, choir and orchestra concerts and all kinds of end-of-the-year programs that parents are invited (expected?) to attend.
As I drag my heels and follow my three kids (7, 8 and 10) into this brief, breathless season that comes back around every year, I find myself thinking that there is so much more expected of parents today than there used to be.
I’ve confirmed with my mom: Her schedule was not as crammed or as stressful as mine—and she was a single parent of three.
I had one end-of-year event in elementary school—when I graduated the fifth grade. My sons? Every year they have a reading awards ceremony, a dance-off, a moving-up-to-the-next-grade celebration, an end-of-the-school-year party, and a Physical Education Day. And they’re all on different days of the week, for each kid. At this rate, I should just camp out at the school. Fortunately, I work for myself, from home, which makes attending these festivities possible—what do full-time working parents with less flexible schedules do?
Every time I turn around, someone is asking me if I want to volunteer for something. Someone is inviting me to an after-school event. Someone is telling me about another award ceremony that’s scheduled—an award ceremony for passing standardized testing, an award ceremony for reading a certain number of books, an award ceremony for passing the fourth grade (and the second grade and first grade), and an award ceremony for making this cool thing in art class, even though you can’t really tell what it’s supposed to be.
I’m glad my sons are (evidently) awesome. But I don’t need more award ceremonies.
When I was in school, my teacher’s end-of-the-year gift was a hand-written note from me, along with maybe a small chocolate bar or a clichéd—but classic—shiny red apple. Now you walk into a teacher’s classroom before the summer break and her entire desk is filled with homemade gifts and large party baskets and gift cards for $100 to the local restaurant she marked as her favourite when she filled out the teacher information sheet at the beginning of the year (which I lost almost immediately). Throughout the spring, I received constant notices about “Treat the staff” and “Teacher Appreciation Week” (it was May 6-11, in case you were wondering) with suggested gifts for EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE WEEK. Then there were emails saying “it’s the teacher’s birthday, so let’s pool money to buy her a crazy-cool gift,” followed by more plans for the end-of-the-school-year gift.
I have three sons in separate classes at school. Luckily, they share an art teacher, a music teacher, a P.E. teacher, and a gifted program teacher. But that’s still seven teachers. Buying gifts for all of them is a second job. The cost can quickly become prohibitive, and then there's the time it would take to create something meaningful and budget-friendly.
Now, I’m not saying that teachers don’t deserve to be pampered. Teachers are saints. Being stuck in a room with 20 five-year-olds? That sounds like torture to me, but there are teachers who live for it, and I can’t help but admire them, because I tried homeschooling once, and it didn’t go well. I once found myself threatening my ornery five-year-old with calling the cops because he wouldn’t sit down and copy the handwriting passage that my lesson plans said he had to do. That was my wakeup call: I was not made to be a teacher, and this is why I appreciate them immensely.
It’s just that when we add all this extra stuff on top of the daily challenges of parenting, it feels practically impossible to do either one well. My kids are complaining that they’re the only ones in school who didn’t bring their teacher a gift, and one teacher is asking where the seven-year-old’s permission slip went, and another is asking if I got that notice they sent home about the math night they’re having at school. The truth is, I’m not keeping up with all the papers sent home—there’s a five-inch-thick stack on the counter. I just wrote in the seven-year-old’s reading folder, which hasn’t been signed since November, “He’s reading. I promise,” and called it a day.
Sometimes I wish we could revert to the slower pace of my childhood, to what seemed like simpler times. I’m all for sending a teacher a nice note to let her know just how much I appreciate what she’s done in my kid’s life, but when I think about preparing seven teacher gifts for the five days (that’s 35 total gifts) of Teacher Appreciation Week—the money it might demand or the time it would take to make my own—I feel a bit overwhelmed.
How am I supposed to keep my head above water? I have a husband—a very supportive one who happens to be one of the most hands-on dads I know. We have an egalitarian household where we split everything down the middle, but even the two of us can’t keep up with this intense pace in May and June.
My sons are not involved in extra-curricular activities right now, and that's by choice. (Constantly feeling overwhelmed by our schedule doesn’t bode well for my mothering abilities.) But what happens when they move up to middle school? Do we get exponentially more overwhelmed? Is this a proper way to live? The answer is no.
But I’ll keep trucking away, as best I can, drowning in papers and events and ceremonies. (And looking, endlessly, for a pen with which to sign too many agendas.) After all, it’s just another year of practice as I learn to let go, surrender and concede defeat to that imaginary ideal of a mom who "has it all together." One look at my kids' agendas signed in neon pink crayon reveals our reality.
Thankfully, there’s no report card for parents at the end of the year—only in our minds.