Wednesday 11 December 2019

Normal life returns as the school bell rings...

Pressure to keep the kids entertained over Christmas had us hoping it would all be over soon, writes Sarah Caden

Close to the edge: We held up over Christmas, but it was touch and go... but now it’s time for the little angels to go back to school. Picture posed by models
Close to the edge: We held up over Christmas, but it was touch and go... but now it’s time for the little angels to go back to school. Picture posed by models

Sarah Caden

For many of us the annual detox begins tomorrow. Even if we returned to work last week, Christmas ends for real tomorrow, when the school gates reopen and the children return to the routine.

Then, and only then, will it all be over. Then, and only then, will reality come back into effect. Our minds will turn to eating properly, quitting the drink and shoe-horning some exercise into our busy lives. Part of the cleansing process, it seems, is clearing our lives of the children once again.

We so look forward to Christmas - the break, the self-indulgence and the rosy-glow time together. Then no sooner have the school holidays commenced than the "when are they back to school?" and "what will I do with them?" moaning begins.

We get lists of things to "keep them entertained". We hear how Christmas is an incredibly stressful time to have children and how bored they can become through the family visiting, the seasonal shutdown of activities and the locked-in effect of the cold weather. We feel endlessly sorry for them - no, actually, for ourselves - in the face of the near-impossible effort to stop them being bored.

In two weeks, when we're back into the normal cycle of lunch boxes, after-school schedules, childminders and homework, we'll be wishing it was Christmas every day. And yet, while it's happening, the done thing seems to be to moan about it.

We've become fearful of having nothing to do. It sits uneasily with adults, who set great store by being frantic all the time and compete endlessly with one another to be the most busy, the most harried. Then we pass that along to the children. We offer them endlessly busy lives all year long and then we, as families, feel uncomfortable as Christmas imposes idleness on us. The family set of matching onesies make us happy for as long as it takes to do a group selfie and post it on Facebook, but then we feel we should be doing something, being busy and brilliant.

Except, for days and days over Christmas, there's actually nothing to do. And we're ill at ease with that. The kids don't even have to complain about being bored, because we don't let them get to that point, lining up fillers for the days off and hoping peace will reign if everyone is distracted.

It's a sort of cycle of perpetual parental dissatisfaction in which we have become stuck. We blame it on the kids, of course, because iPads and screen time have created short attention spans and spoiltness, but actually we're the ones who have the problem with the holidays. We're the ones who have worked ourselves into a state of being incapable of stopping and standing still.

The culture of constant comparison doesn't help. Kim Kardashian had better seasonal family photos than you. The Beckhams had a family New Year's Eve that was chic to the hilt and didn't seem to include any rows. Celebrities like Aoibhin Garrihy had a photogenic, pregnant Christmas, enjoying what has now become the idealised phase of parenthood - that is, the bit where the rosy glow exists without the inconvenience of actual children.

The modern model is that we sort of love the idea of our children, but hate the reality. We love the picture-perfect Instagram-feed ideal of our kids, but can't be doing with the minutes after those idyllic moments, when they were all tearing strips off each other.

Christmas is warm intimacy side-by-side with overlong proximity to one another. And it's testing, there's no denying that. But somehow, as with a lot of other aspects of being a family, we've turned it into a test of our parenting.

The very fact that we have made a verb of being a parent says it all. It's an activity, rather than a role. It's something you do rather than what you are and at Christmas, of all times, this is just too much pressure.

It's what causes parents to buckle under the strain of trying to do it all perfectly. It's what causes us to wish they were back at school the day after St Stephen's Day. It's what will have some parents whooping at the school gate tomorrow morning, relieved that the pressure is off them to entertain, endlessly tidy up after and utterly enjoy their children's every minute.

It's too much to expect relentless jollity over two whole weeks. Last week, I came across two different psychologists talking about the value of giving children chores. On RTE radio, David Coleman discussed how important it is to start early with giving our children responsibility. He meant little jobs, small errands, age-appropriate independence of a kind.

Elsewhere, I read a newspaper feature in which another psychologist said something similar, while parents contributed their opinions on his advice.

To my surprise, some of the parents were averse to burdening their children with boring old work. Childhood was too short, they said, housework was an ordeal they didn't need.

In a way, it was jarring to read, during the school holidays, about giving our children work to do. And yet, it was apt, too. After all, over Christmas is when you're in the house more than at any other time of the year. You're not dashing out to school and work, you're there making a mess, constantly. You're there suddenly seeing dust and neglected skirting boards and un-wiped window sills and there's a satisfaction in putting things right. It's part of the joy of the season, the nesting and making things nice.

It's not the giddy, jolly joy, but it's part of the sense of being a family, making a home, fostering togetherness. And, I'm with the psychologists in thinking that part of what bonds a family, and even family time, is not just the fun but also the work.

We're doing them no favours by trying to convince them that every day for two weeks can be a winter wonderland of fun and games; we're kidding ourselves if we think our children can't see how stressed that effort makes us.

And so it all comes to an end for another year and as we're cheering at the gate, we're also feeling guilty about it.

It's time for a detox from the dread of doing the parenting all wrong.

Sunday Independent

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