Try as we might try to avoid the frenetic pull of back to school season, its chaotic vortex seems inescapable. Even those without kids in school or any tie to academia report a feeling of greater intensity at work, and a seriousness creeping in that has long been absent. We’re feeling it more than usual in the Courchesne home. Malcolm started kindergarten, and I upped my teaching gig and now have 60 students’ names to learn. Even Christophe, seemingly insulated from many of the changes in his law job (because the law never takes a summer vacation) is feeling a glowering sense of work catching up.
Fall is what we all seem to live for here in New England especially. Relieved to feel the sodden, humid air dissipate, and able, for a little time, to forget the gray snowbanks and desert dry air coming in a few months, we all prance around eating apples and taking hay rides and skipping down leaf strewn lanes wearing supple leather boots of an equestrian styling. Or, at least, this is New England in the popular imagination. And there is a surprising amount of truth to it, though I’m still saving up for some supple boots. Still, our idyll is fleeting, and it may be that knowledge that adds a tinge of anxiety to the season.
For me, it’s compounded this year by the end of my mornings with my kids. For most of their brief lives, I’ve worked two days a week and had three off with them. This was, I think, perhaps the most perfect arrangement I could have found. I got my grown-up days to do work I care about, and then I got to hang out with my boys. Once out of the infant stage (which I confess to detesting), it became scandalously fun. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we would visit museums, hike, go to the beach, or languorously peruse the shelves at the library. As they got older and less gruelingly demanding, I began to feel a bit of guilt creeping in, that I was playing hooky this way. There is a whole separate universe of other women home with their kids, and they own the weekday morning. At ten am (the hour at the very heart of the Mommy-and-Me universe) one can observe, in any museum or nature center or library, streams of women and children pouring in for formal programs, or open studios, or story hours. They are a huge and powerful force. One day, in one of the more upscale communities we frequented, five women in nearly matching maxi dresses and pushing every color of the BOB stroller arrived together for a museum play date. The social situation was something akin to middle school–my children and I were scanned, briefly, and then scrupulously ignored as the superior children of the maxi dresses ate crayons and licked the carpet while their mothers texted each other.
There are, then, things I will not miss about those mornings: the catty, petty insecurities of women of all sorts, but compounded by mommy guilt of any stripe; the feeling of isolation induced by being a part-time working mother who likes to work and would never want to give it up; the boring conversations where I feigned interest in shopping, or stand mixers, or pretended I could relate to being a sports widow whose husband can’t change a diaper. But there are more things that I will miss. I’m still with my kids every afternoon from 1:30 on, but it’s different. Their best hours are behind them, and they are crankier, hungrier and more disagreeable than they are at 10am. And we still go places, but by 3:30, all the school kids are out, and lots of parents are with them, and the noise and the activity everywhere are nothing like a mommy-and-me morning.
Malcolm jumped up on the bus for his first day of kindergarten without a backward glance and has felt not a pang over it since. His brother, now in preschool five half days a week, has been similarly unfazed. And I confess to feeling none of the teary, bittersweet sadness over their growing older either. I can see my future, just a few years hence, when I will have my own, grown-up life back, and a full career with real colleagues. I don’t need to rush it, but I don’t need to linger in their baby years either.
Yesterday was one of the perfect early fall days that sustain us New Englanders. After school, I took the boys to the beach. They swam in the late summer Atlantic, at last warm enough not to numb one’s limbs, and they dug for treasure, and flung dead crabs and sand at each other. It could, from most outward signs, have been July, but for the little shifts one senses but hardly registers consciously. As we walked back to the car at five o’clock, the sun was already at a low angle, and our elongate shadows passed ahead of us on the sand. Mine was grotesquely distorted, but my boys’, flanking mine, and for now, holding my hands, appeared merely older. Simon’s big round baby head was instead normally proportioned atop broadening shoulders. Their legs were lanky and slim-hipped. They could have been 12 and 10. With their sleek shadows gliding ahead, and the receding sun behind, there was the sense of something ending. But in the shift, there is another thing beginning too.