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Are We Nearly There Yet?
Teacher, take these kids from me. I can’t endure them any more.
I feel a great shift in the force. As if millions of parents suddenly cried out in delight.
“ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?!?”
No, not a question coming from the backseat on the road trip you bravely attempted this summer. This is a cry from deep inside the subconscious of every parent approaching the dog days of the summer holidays. “Are we nearly there yet?” isn’t so much about a physical destination—it’s a cry for help as we count down the days till they’re back at school and we can finally find some much-needed headspace.
Two years ago, I wrote about lovingly launching my children through the school gates. My feelings then echo my feelings today:
Here’s the thing. We all know we shouldn’t wish away the last days of summer—calculating the remaining time until they’re finally standing awkwardly on the front doorstep, forcing out a smile, for that quintessential “first day back” photo. But you can’t help calendar-watch. I’ve had countless friends, from the UK, US and beyond, message to share their delight in being back on the school run, and having a clean, quiet home to return to. I feel guilty thinking about it, and wrong writing about it. Because the number of summers we’ll spend with our kids is finite, and one day they won’t want to spend them with us.
Summer holidays as a child were a sweet relief: an escape from the rigid structure of the school day, where a ringing bell would indicate movement was required—either of your person or your frame of mind—to the next block in the day, an early onboarding to the eventual calendarisation of childhood. But the excitement on the last day of school was unparalleled—the ecstasy of a Friday afternoon promised across an entire summer. For parents, it’s anything but, and before long we crave the structure that the school week brings.
We’ve searched for routine wherever we can find it. We’ve long since cemented our status as regulars in our local coffee shop, but we took it to the next level this summer. We’ve spent most mornings there—a simple way to get them up and out of the house, a vital caffeine injection for the parents, and a box of street chalks behind the counter so the kids can keep themselves occupied outside.
We’re far from the only family to have this idea. I’ve regularly bumped into the same few folks, parents partaking in a similar ritual, the light in their eyes slowly extinguishing as summer progressed. Seeing those familiar faces over the last few weeks has felt like prisoners meeting in the rec yard as they approach the end of a long sentence, sharing their hopes and dreams for the day they make it outside. Or to lean on a metaphor that might be more resonant than a prison one, it’s been akin to hitting the 25-mile marker of a marathon—needing to dig deep, knowing you’re almost there, but instead of thousands of well-wishers cheering you on you’ve just got one screaming four-year-old who hasn’t slept in two weeks. It has been a slog. Even with the greatest of efforts, the kids are understimulated. The day trips have grown progressively more functional and less aspirational—a feeling captured perfectly by comedian George Lewis: “Today we’re going to … pick up daddy’s prescription!”
The calendar breaks all rules of space and time during these weeks. Your exhaustion somehow puts the universe in opposition to Einstein’s theory of relativity: why does time seem to be moving at a glacial pace for parents, compared to those child-free friends complaining about the summer flashing by too fast? How has the last week taken a month? And why will the first day they’re back flash by in mere minutes?
I may be longing for my children to return to the weekday care of others. But this was a summer for the books. My ongoing health tribulations—and seemingly never-ending battle with long Covid—appear to be behind me. The Dutch say, "Sickness comes on horseback but departs on foot.” Whilst it hasn’t entirely left the vicinity, I’m feeling like a completely different human being than last summer, when I mostly hid from the sun and crashed out in dreaded post-exertion malaise, even when the exertion was as minimal as “seeing some friends for lunch.”
Health has been top of mind. We only get one body, and if the last few years of health hazards have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t possibly be the parent and partner you want to be if you’re not physically fit to do it. The back-to-school period can trigger a mindset shift for parents similar to January 1st for others. What did we learn? What are we going to do differently next year? What do we want to change now we’ve got the headspace to think about it? The last few months have seen an increased focus from dads in the community on their personal and mental health—some have shared progress in shifting their relationship with alcohol, others have taken up fitness challenges, whilst one dad is sharing the (frankly gorgeous) output of a renewed daily sketching practice. All this collective progress has inspired the creation of a new channel, “I’m Trying Ringo,” in honour of Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable closing monologue from Pulp Fiction. There’s something powerful in a small group you can share your goals and progress with—as writer Dan Sullivan offered, you should “surround yourself with people who remind you more of your future than your past.” So, whilst this isn’t going to turn into a fitness newsletter, expect to see physical health given as high a billing as mental health in future issues.
The plan was to get this out before the kids returned to school. I didn’t quite hit my deadline—I’m giving this essay the final edit in the same coffee shop where I’ve spent many hours (and euros) this summer. But today my flat white is being savoured, not swiftly imbibed; I am writing without a small child pulling my shirt, demanding I go outside and play. I’ve seen some of those same parents this morning, smiles as broad as their faces, the world's weight lifted off our collective shoulders. It’s not far from the truth to say the atmosphere here is celebratory—I wonder if I should hang a sign up outside this time next year: “Congratulations, Parents. We Made It.”
One of the core tenets of The New Fatherhood is that we should aim to thrive, not just survive, as parents. But sometimes, survival is all we can muster. I love my children. But after 76 sweltering days together, it’s time. Some distance, even the few kilometres between here and their school, will surely make the heart grow fonder. And when they burst back through the door, mere minutes from now, I can’t wait to hear all about their first day back.
One thing to read this week
This is the fifth September we’ve sent a child to school, and we have become exceedingly efficient at it. For some of you, this may be the first time. Others will be a few years out. But for all, this essay from The Small Bow is worth your time: a heartfelt examination of that first school run, as a father grapples with what it means to bring your past into the present, and our role as parents in becoming “vessels of love and support.”
“And when Wednesday finally came, it was much more hectic than my nerves could stand. My son, the oldest, wasn't ready for the day either. We couldn't drag him out of there during his visitation last May, but he's a mess today. I tried to pretend I wasn't a mess, but I think he could tell I was uneasy. There were so many more parents milling around the drop-off line, including one dad who was – no lie – barefoot. In typical situations, I'd consider this gross, but on this day, I envied him. Barefoot Dad may have been completely insane, but he has the type of confidence I've coveted my whole life.”
A short one this week whilst I get my feet back under the desk. How’d you like it? Your feedback helps me make this great.