I spend an extraordinary amount of time one Saturday morning scrubbing the baseboards of the playroom, wiping down every plastic piece of my kids’ grocery store play set, arranging the fake produce in the right bin, the cardboard packs of cheese in the tiny wooden fridge.
I am nesting, but I’m not pregnant. In a week, my 7-year-old, Alice, will go back to school, into a second grade classroom with her unicorn dress and french braids bouncing. My toddler Lucy will follow soon after into the same preschool her big sister attended, where the teachers already know her by name. I want to get organized, I want a fresh slate, I want to make resolutions.
Back to school is my real New Year.
I’m in the mood for chore charts, for new bed sheets, for fresh pairs of socks in everyone’s drawer. I suddenly need to revamp the linen closet, and then buy a can of paint so I can finally refinish Alice’s desk. I decide that every day when we come home from school, there will be a snack already waiting on the table for both girls, that we’ll all take a walk together to decompress. My resolution is to keep the TV off until at least 5:00, when I will get back on the meal planning train I had for most of the spring and make something full of veggies and sustenance and nutrients to make my girls big and strong.
I take Alice back-to-school shopping and I buy a new pink bento box for her lunch and I go ahead and pick up the single-serve packs of cookies she loves and I fill the Target cart with new underwear and new shorts and every dress that contains a rainbow or unicorn. Bonus points if it has both.
She tells me she’d like to try cucumbers one day, and I buy two, a vision already in my head of those cute flower-shaped veggies in her lunchbox for her to dip in her hummus. So then I buy a flower-shaped mini cookie cutter.
I make a plan — like an actual plan — to take both girls to DSW on a Saturday morning to try on new shoes. I’ve ordered shoes a thousand times for them while online shopping, but back-to-school season feels different. I need them to sit and try them on, to walk up and down the carpeted aisle, for me to press my thumbs into the tops of the shoe to feel their toes. I need to envision them in gym class, on the playground, through the cafeteria.
I decide that on the days both girls are in school, after drop-off, I will have my own 10-minute walk around the block. A reset. A commute to the rest of my day. I will have work meetings without having to turn on Disney+ and pass out bags of Goldfish crackers. I will get whole chunks of the day where my brain can focus on just one thing at a time.
Summer has been a joy. We have baked so many treats together, it feels like the kitchen counter should have an indention where my toddler sat, her legs swinging against the dishwasher. We have gone to the pool and the beach, I have a routine of immediately drying towels as soon as we come home so I can fold them back in the bag. They know if a new ice cream flavor is behind the glass of the chocolate shop. We have slept in, stayed up late, killed the grass in the backyard in three spots thanks to the splash pad and the bounce house and the pool.
Summer’s heat — and its humidity and its mosquitos — will linger. But the new season, the back-to-school season, stands on its own. I buy a red corduroy jumper with an apple embroidered on the front, even though my toddler won’t be able to wear it until mid-October. I ready my kitchen for cinnamon and pumpkin and spice even though my husband has begged me to put the fall candles away until at least September 1. I save recipes for hearty soups full of veggies and beef that has been seared and simmered until it falls apart, soups that will stick to our ribs and stomachs like a comforting weighted blanket.
Actual New Year only feels sparkly to me for a few hours, that period when everyone’s wearing sequins and they’re slightly buzzed from cheap champagne. There’s a hush, a reverence about the night. We sing “Auld Lang Syne” as if we know the words, and we make sweeping resolutions like “this year is my year” and “I’m officially not drinking any sodas.” And then we wake up the next day and January is still dark and gray and dreary. We want to curl up on the couch and watch the Twilight Zone marathon and eat leftover pigs-in-a-blanket and ignore all of the wine glasses that need to be washed by hand cluttering the kitchen counter.
But back-to-school season? It lasts for weeks and it’s full of possibilities, of nostalgia, of sharpened pencils and the bright spines of children’s books lined on a shelf. It’s a chance to refresh, to take a deep breath, to settle into a comforting routine that will also stretch us and empower us and help us to grow.
And sometimes the best way to celebrate that is by mopping the floors at 11 p.m. and buying an extra bag of flour because you’ve decided hot pancakes every morning are much better than a cold bowl of cereal before school.