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Sarah Caden: 'Back to school is a bore, but there is an annual delight in doing nothing'

Fear of being bored drives the detox frenzy, but back to school can be delightfully dull, writes Sarah Caden


JANUARY BLUES: ‘No new uniforms or school bags or different teachers. Just more of the same. Back to school after December gives us nothing.’ Photo: David Conachy

JANUARY BLUES: ‘No new uniforms or school bags or different teachers. Just more of the same. Back to school after December gives us nothing.’ Photo: David Conachy

JANUARY BLUES: ‘No new uniforms or school bags or different teachers. Just more of the same. Back to school after December gives us nothing.’ Photo: David Conachy

Officially, the tree comes down today, but tomorrow life returns properly to normal. Even if you don't have children, you will observe how the roads are once again clogged with those who do, ferrying them back to school. The routine sets in again and, to a certain extent, we welcome it. Sort of.

The new-year return to normality is more tinged with sadness than the summer back-to-school routine. No photos to capture how the summer has reared them.

No new uniforms or school bags or different teachers. Just more of the same, after a jolly, sugar-fuelled interlude that leaves people of all ages in a slump they can't quite define.

The weather doesn't help, of course. Back to school in September always bears the promise of a last burst of sunshine, however false that promise may be, but January gives us nothing.

Dragging kids out of bed on pitch-dark mornings, coming home as the dusk begins to set in, it's hard to face, particularly as the country bedecked in glimmering garden lights has been dimmed once more.

It is, literally, as if the lights have gone off now the festive season is truly done and dusted. It can be hard to keep a hold of any positivity. Did I mention the UK statistic that today, January 6, is the day on which one is most likely to die?

You have to wonder, sometimes, what is the point of getting ourselves so revved up with all that excitement and alcohol and sugar, if the consequence of it is just one big slump?

The point of it all, perhaps, is distraction from the dark and the short days and, on that score, the festive season works a treat.

The problem is that once that distraction is dispensed with, where do we turn next? It's hard to threaten that Santa's still watching as a form of behaviour-control when he's not returning for another 12 months.

For adults, the new-year hit comes from the flipside of self-indulgence, and that is the annual obsession with dieting and detoxing.

It's not enough to simply call a halt to the three massive meals a day that were happening while I was home all day, each followed by a little treat.

It's not enough to opt for the model of eating less and exercising more. Instead, once we've depleted the house of the too-many treats bought in fear of sugar Armageddon, we go extremely into complete sugar elimination, which is guaranteed to cause a headache.

And caffeine elimination - as we attempt to readjust to getting up at 7am again. And dry January. And no wheat. And no joy, as if in penance for all those tidings of same just past.

We log on to Gwyneth Paltrow's annual detox and discover that along with the expected eliminations, we're also not allowed tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, dairy.

It's not so much a ditching of the bad practices of December as a complete trading-in of ourselves.

We've destroyed ourselves with sugar and booze and animal fats and now we'd like a new self, please. So we shell out for gym memberships that might be used for only one-third of the year.

We buy a load of Pilates gear in the sales and act like the commercial commitment will help us keep the physical commitment, too. We regard anything less than pure punishment as too dull to dare consider.

We pretend that this is getting back to the routine and restoring equilibrium, but in fact it's just chasing a replacement high.

Needless to mention, these efforts are often unrealistic and generally a sure route to defeated self-loathing, but we throw ourselves into it anyway.

It's a distraction and distraction is what keeps us going these days.

What do we dangle in front of the kids as the next big high, what do we have to look forward to? Now that highly decorated Halloween segues seamlessly into an American-style "Deck the Halls" Christmas, we almost expect that there are lights and decorations to fill every hole in ours souls, but in January, where is the next hit on the horizon?

Easter and its attendant sugar and school holidays is a long way away.

And we don't do well with delayed gratification these days. We adults, that is.

It's a terrific example for the children, really.

We love to moan about how children these days are stuck in their screens and incapable of being bored for even a moment, but the example we set is scary.

Christmas is a case in point, with our inability to leave any day empty, even in the lead-up to the big event. The decorating seems to kick off on the stroke of midnight on November 30, and you're the street scrooge if your decorations and lighting doesn't extend to the outdoors. We have a moment of giddy excitement every day of December thanks to elves who move about the house by night and daily-gift-giving advent calendars, for children and adults alike.

Santa visits are booked out from October, there are festivals and Christmas-themed family days and it's just not enough to loll in front of the telly any more or take an afternoon to clear out everyone's sock drawers, like you've been threatening to since summer. Because that's not actively Christmassy, that's much too passive. That's not making memories.

The making memories is exhausting and it's not guaranteed that our active memory-making will pay off in better memories for our kids than we have of our parents' less obviously strenuous efforts.

What is guaranteed is that it won't stop them blaming us for everything negative in their lives. That's just a given coming down the tracks to all of us, no matter how early we book Santa or love the elf.

By our example, though, we are teaching the kids that being constantly excited for (that seems to be the preposition now) the next thrill is what life is all about. They watch us spend like mad to make Christmas perfect, they listen to us moan about the same and they see us stress and strain over an extended-family event fraught with tension and they learn that a state of high emotion is the way to live. No wonder they're all anxious.

No wonder we are. The kids go back to school and we go back to work. We wonder why we spent the last week saying it was time to get back to normal and we wonder why normal feels so utterly abnormal.

Normal is an abyss to be filled with new year's resolutions, self-denial and some self-flagellation that Christmas might not been as perfect as we hoped.

Further, if we are parents, we experience another month of financial haemorrhage as we shell out for a new term of activities, grinds, childcare and school fees.

The specialness of Christmas cost us a fortune, and now normal brings us to the brink of bankrupt.

Bring them back to school tomorrow. Tell them that, yeah, it's a bit boring. Get a bit bored yourself. Bask in it. Give yourself a break, perhaps. The next thing will come along soon enough.

Sunday Independent