My kids just went back to school last Wednesday. I know, you’re thinking, “Ah, I get it. First day of school. Best. Day. Ever.”
But nope. That’s not it.
About three weeks prior to their first day back, my husband went back to school. He’s a math teacher at a local Christian school, and they happen to start a good three weeks before our kids. For the first time all summer, I was flying solo.
I know that’s unimpressive to those of you who slog out the whole summer on your own, but for me, it felt like a big deal. See, this is the first summer I’ve actually been working - I mean working outside the home where other people depend on me to complete a task by a given date. And while I love my new responsibilities, the summer proved a challenge in balance - a transition that our whole family tried to navigate, sometimes marginally successfully, most times like an out-of-control train hurtling over the side of a cliff. Sigh.
Anyway, as my hubs headed back to school, I was desperately trying to figure out what I would do with my kids each day. Of course, I wanted activities that enriched their minds, captured their imaginations, and drew us three emotionally closer.
Talk about living in a Disney fantasy.
The more I thought about it, the more stressed I became. Who was I kidding? I had work to do, deadlines to meet, and all my kids’ friends were going out of town on vacations before the school year began. I had nothing but a pile of anxiety and that all-too-familiar feeling of mom guilt. I’m sure you’ve never felt that, but it goes something like this, “You are ruining you’re children and they’ll hate you for it someday.” Double sigh.
So on that first day my hubby went back to work, despite my best intentions, my kids pretty much sat on the couch for a couple hours watching TV while I feverishly pounded the keys of my computer, silently cursing myself for sucking as a mom.
And then lunch came.
Everyone has to eat, right? So I took a break to feed the kiddos. At that time, every eating surface in our home resembled an archaeological dig site - we’d have haul away mountains of debris in order to find a spot large enough for a plate. So I decided to take out food outside, since it was one of the five days this summer that we didn’t have torrential rains. Not kidding.
Throwing an old blanket on the ground, I dumped a tub of watermelon, some crackers, a jar of peanut butter, and some jelly on top. I think there might have been a bag of chips involved, but I can’t swear to it. There were definitely no plates…maybe a skimpy roll of paper towels.
Who knew those would be the ingredients for a magical afternoon.
I didn’t set out with high expectations. In fact, I felt pretty rotten that, on top of working all morning and depriving my kids of enriching experiences, I couldn’t even get a decent, nutritious lunch together. Surely, my inadequacies as a mother are sending my children on the fast track to therapy.
Delighted at the change in venue, my kids eagerly sat down to nosh. We giggled at making peanut butter and jelly with our fingers because I forgot to bring out a knife to spread the goo. We grabbed handfuls of chips right from the bag, crumbs falling everywhere and no one caring. In between slapping at mosquitoes, we told jokes and picked out shapes in the clouds.
When my son finished eating, he got on our swing and said, “Mama?” followed by a quick, “Oh never mind.” It sounded like the start to a conversation where he’s going to ask for something he knows I won’t give him, thought better of it, and moved on. But I pressed, “What do you need, Bubby?”
“Well,” he started, “I was just wondering…”
‘Here is comes,’ I thought. ‘He wants dessert, and I don’t have anything on hand. This is going to turn into an argument.’
“...do you have time to swing with me a little bit?”
You guys. Even thinking about that moment brings tears to my eyes because of its simple, honest invitation and because of all the ways I made being with my kids so complicated. In that moment, God gave me the sense to recognize that my kids don’t need stimulating activities. They don’t need to be entertained. They don’t need me to create the perfect environments or scenarios for an epic summer.
They just need my heart and my attention.
And thankfully, for a little bit that afternoon, I had it to give.
My daughter joined us, and we played on the swing (which makes me literally nauseous, by the way). We made up weird questions to ask each other and even weirder songs about ourselves. We tried throwing chunks of watermelon in each other’s mouths and didn’t get a single one in. We talked about school, locust shells, burrowing bees, cartwheels, and popsicles.
It was the most magical afternoon of my life.
I didn't take a single photo of our time together. Didn't post it on Facebook or write a quippy caption about on Insta. I remained fully present with my kids for that snatch of summer afternoon. It was the best thing I did for myself all summer long.
As all good things do, our moment of magic outside wound down to an end. We cleaned up our mess (sort of) and wandered back inside to our respective spots - me back to finish work at the computer, my daughter into her room to listen to Harry Potter, and my son to his room to work on Legos.
But I've held on to that memory, and I'm praying my kids did too. And I'm resting in - and maybe even capitalizing on - my inability to be a "perfect mom." Turns out my kids like me just the way I am.