Battling your back to school blues as a parent.

Back To School Blues, it's okay for Mom to feel sad too.

It;s not just children who experience the back to school blues. Sending your child into the big wide world is quite a wrench for Mom too.

The weather is beginning to change, autumn is almost here, and inevitably social media is full of the first day of school photographs. In the same way that the photographs of children in immaculate uniforms, with their hair in ambitious braids and forced smiles on their faces, so are the distressed parent statuses. Whether your child is just starting school for the first time, transitioning from Primary to high, or simply moving up a grade September is a reminder that your children are no longer babies, and that they are careering towards independence at the rate of knots. If this makes you feel sad then you’re not alone, in fact in a Netmums Survey over 50% of respondents reported concerns about missing their child when they started school. But these feelings are not limited to parents with young children starting school, for many the transitions that our children go through bring out a nagging sadness.

When you bring a child into your world life changes forever. Many parents report shelving their social lives and professional aspirations in favour of nurturing and extending the opportunities available to their child. Though you had to make sacrifices and lots of the changes that a baby brings about are beyond your control, you are still fundamentally making the majority of decisions. When your child starts school an institution sets the agenda, tying your family to a timetable, and a calendar which is outside of your nurturing control. The structure of their day is handed over to strangers, professional and trustworthy, but still strangers who expect your child to adhere to their expectations. This is a steep curve for parents and children, and it’s a curve which is regularly amplified and intensified by the frequent power grabs made by your child as they transition from child to tween, teen to kidult and your opinions become frequently muted.

When our children are younger we know who we are to them and we understand our role in their lives, often pausing our own lives and career development in favour of nurturing their development. Many parents experience a strong sense of gratification as their child develops, but as they grow children seem to want us in their lives less, and often we associate that with no longer being needed. When framed in this context of loss it’s easy to see why many parents experience a degree of grief as their child embarks on a new stage of their life.

A common reaction to grief is to idealize and enshrine our memories of the past. The sleepless nights and smelly nappies are a blurred memory. The less enjoyable parenting experiences are packed in a box and lost in the dark corners of the warehouse of our mind. Often times parents fall into a trap of trying to capture and hold on to precious moments and happy memories, but this can dull down the experiences as they happen. It’s easy to become so caught up in trying to preserve memories that we forget to savor the aspects of special time with our growing child that cannot be recreated in a photograph, the way that it feels to experience a moment is the most precious thing in the world. It cannot be captured to be replayed and relived. It’s a one time deal, and as our children grow we become acutely aware of these moments becoming fewer. They become more independent and share moments which were once reserved for their parents become someone else’s to enjoy.

As children grow their opportunities for independence and exploration grow with them. Social opportunities enable children to form relationships with peers independently from their parents. Many parents find their child’s widening circles of friendship, trust and affection a nerve inducing prospect. Some experience anxiety regarding social influence but credible study and meta analyses offer no evidence that supports the suggestion that a child’s innate need to mix with friends has any more of a significant impact on children’s behavior than the lessons learned in the home. Others worry that their child’s increase in displays of social affection sets the stage for experiences of rejection. As a parent, we spend the first years of our children’s lives protecting them from pain as much as we can. When they become a social entity in their own right, and away from our watchful gaze, we simply cannot protect them from everything that they encounter, nor to should we as experiences of pain are a necessary part of life. Before you have children you’d never believe it possible that you can feel something deeper than empathy for another persons’ pain, but when our children hurt we feel it with them at a physical and visceral level. There is an evolutionary necessity to the phenomenon, and possibly some psychosomatic conditioning. But it’s real, and it’s another motivating factor in the roller coaster of emotions which come as our children grow through stages of childhood.

The bottom line is that as your child transitions through stages of childhood your life changes profoundly. Your daily role and routine now fit around school run, the social experiences of parent-child groups are over, and your chances to go out and enjoy the simple trips that light up your child’s life are significantly reduced. Many parents find these losses and changes springboard them into a period of isolation and loneliness in which their opinions are muted and their feelings unaccounted for.

The pull to idealise the childhood moments which have passed often clouds our memory and causes us to forget all of those times that we wished for our old, pre-child experiences back. I’m yet to meet a parent who could honestly say that they have never pined for some aspect of their former life, whether it’s career opportunities or social experiences that they have missed; hobbies, a tidy house or time with a spouse, when your child transitions and needs you less it is a golden opportunity to reconnect with your former self, or remodel and connect with a new you. Taking some time for yourself while your child is at school, or as your child becomes a social butterfly will not make you any less of a parent, some might even say that it provides your children with a healthy example of balanced adulthood in which adults can be both parents and entities in their own right.

While it is true that your school-aged child is no longer a baby by definition, your child will always be your baby. This is a concept that I struggled with at first. My eldest child was born with physical disabilities and it became rapidly apparent that he was struggling on other levels. He was diagnosed with autism during middle childhood. When my children went to school I felt like a spare part. There was no one tugging on the pocket of my jeans and demanding “Mummy, up!”. There was no one using the toilet bowl as a jacuzzi for action man, and there was no one having the mother of all melt downs. I went from intense parenting to six child free hours. I made every mistake possible, I lived life behind the lens desperately documenting moments to remember but missing the depth and richness of real world experience. I also filled my time with work and study because it scratched an itch for me for a while. I effectively allowed myself to become further isolated than I had already become as a parent.

What I wish I had done however was to look at these precious changes as a journey of excitement and new possibilities throughout which my children would still need their mother for warmth, sustenance, shelter, and comfort. It took me a few more years as a parent, and a few more children to begin to realise that although I was not with my children in school, I was still on the journey with them. I still played a role in choosing and maintaining a good working relationship with their school. I had a role in their education by supporting them with enrichment and homework. And most importantly they still needed their Mum as much, if not more, than they needed me in the years before school. They needed me as a cheer squad and supporter, as a nag and a guiding hand to keep them on the straight and narrow. It was still my job to make sure that they were safe and to keep them well. But most importantly, they just needed their Mum, without a camera and not immersed in work all the time. They needed to laugh with me, to talk to, to run things past and test ideas and personality development out on. They needed me for advice, and they needed to know that they would have me consistently, openly and authentically there whenever they needed me. Evidence suggests that bonds with primary figures of attachment do not become weaker as children mature and that children are better able to achieve their goals if they are able to utilise a secure attachment as a stable base from which to explore. It took me a while (and in part a psychology degree) but eventually, I realised that my children weren’t leaving me behind at all, they were, in fact, inviting me along on an exciting journey with them… and I’ve never looked back.

If you can relate to any aspect of this article I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you developed a coping strategy when your children started school. Or maybe you battled with a version of empty-next syndrome triggered by school and over came it? Drop me a line in the comments. I’d love your top tips for coping or your words of kindness for those in the thick of empty nest.

P.S, While the majority of us experience a pang of sadness at our children growing further and further from those milky newborn snuggle days we find that it is simply that; a fleeting sadness. If sadness is spoiling your ability to concentrate, spoiling your enjoyment of usually happy things, or the thoughts have overtaken your day or are causing problems with your relationships then please think about seeking advice from your family doctor or a confidential helpline such as family lives which UK residents can all on 0808 800 2222.

Dorne Warner

I'm a freelancer with a diverse range of professional experience and a passionate interest in the human experience. I've spent 20 years working across a range of communicative platforms and online communities. My absolute favourite was 7 years in a voluntary capacity with iVillage UK. In this role, I was able to break the constraints of contracted work and discovered a passion for connecting with service users in order to feedback to HQ. This role generated a depth of understanding of the client experience from which the management was able to improve their service. I refer to this as my favourite because although voluntary iVillage UK helped me to find my speciality and develop my professional skill set. I currently manage an osteopathic practice. By implementing the deeper level of client understanding I have successfully enhanced the treatment experience, dispelled patient anxiety, and shortened prescription lengths. This enhanced service has improved client return rates and word of mouth recommendations. I've also successfully enhanced staff experience. Happy staff are integral to achieving happy clients. My strengths include safeguarding and risk assessment. At a personal level, I am highly motivated and self-critical. I strive to improve myself in order to deliver better results for my employers. My colleagues describe me as intuitive, supportive, and 'useful to have around'. I thrive in positions in which I can support others. I also thrive while self-improving. I remain a student with the open university, with whom I studied for my BSc (Hons) Psychology & am reading an MSc path with. I thrive in support roles. I am freelancing and available for ghostwriting, project management, short-format feature articles and charity work.
  • Jimmy Regan

    Recently been missing my boys being bubbas. Having been sidelined due separation, it’s become more apparent they’re getting on with their lives in a very real sense. On top of that, I’m seeing very young babies everywhere, and getting a bit broody. In spite of the terrible nights’ sleep, the lack of intimacy (three in the bed – Means you got the sofa), the puke, the poo, all that – have all been filed away, and left with the cute baby thing. Been given a chance to potentially start again, and really torn whether I would even want to.