Every year when my daughters go back to school, I find myself feeling queasy, a nervous pit in my stomach and a pounding in my head.
I’m sure a lot of parents remember the first time they dropped off a child at kindergarten and the trepidation of putting your kid in the hands of an unknown teacher and unfamiliar school. For me, that feeling is now multiplied times two (both my kids) and, really, times twelve (the number of classes and teachers my kids now have as middle and high schoolers).
And on top of all that, the pandemic. Younger kids don't yet have the option of getting vaccinated, and that creates layers of worry. Older kids, even if vaccinated, could bring home breakthrough infections caught at school.
And on top of all THAT, what the students have gone through during these 15 months of closure or semi-closure of schools during lockdowns. It's been a time of massive emotional upheaval for people of all ages, but even more critical for developing minds.
All students have been utterly changed by this experience. Never in modern American history have kids had to spend so much time sitting at home—separated physically from their peers—and ruminating on their experiences, their challenges, their identities. Never have they shown up to school so anxious, from what I’ve seen, and yet so hungry for social interaction and human contact. News story after story document the anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental and emotional challenges that students have been going through, not to mention the educational setbacks caused by a lack of in-person education in many areas across the country.
Research is demonstrating the impact. A study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that of 195 students surveyed, "71% indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic), difficulty in concentrating (89%), disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%), decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%), and increased concerns on academic performance (82%)."
In the same vein, a Penn State teen anxiety study from late 2020 showed an increase in anxiety severity of 29%, with generalized anxiety up 46% and school anxiety up 143%.
Teachers are feeling it too. I’ve read alarming statistics about the number of teachers who have recently quit or are considering quitting. It’s been a nearly impossible burden for them to manage online learning and in-class hybrid learning and their own lives. Now, with our schools in California back to fully in-person teaching, I hope it will begin to return to something resembling the profession that they chose. But my daughters have reported that even mild-mannered teachers expressed frustration with students and classroom management in the first days back. So this adjustment period is going to take time for both teachers and students.
And it is also a major adjustment and a scary time for parents. For the first time in 15 months, both my kids were at in-person public school for the past few weeks, away from home for long stretches. I miss the feeling of sheltering from the storm together in our home fortress, where we could still find glimmers of fun and mutual support among all the dirty dishes and piles of dirty face masks and orphan socks. Even knowing how bad things have been, and still are, made us feel that we had to be strong together.
Now, it’s back to a new reality that echoes the old school days, but with a difference. We have been receiving frequent notifications of Covid exposures at the local high and middle schools. We’re doing home tests we bought at Walgreens much more often than I thought we would. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. But I wonder if there is no real “best” in this situation.
During the day while my kids are at school, I picture them fighting the crowds in the halls and passageways of their overcrowded public schools, places built for a fraction of the current enrollment; I picture them encountering classmates who have radically changed their attitude and appearance in a multitude of ways in these past months on their journey through adolescence, older but not always wiser after extended isolation; I picture them trying to get along with teachers and students who are equally shellshocked by the past year and a half’s experience; I picture them at their sports practices, trying to get back skills and teamwork lost in lockdowns; I picture them at mandatory pep rallies, with hundreds of yelling students standing next to them (is this a good idea in a pandemic? They did move the recent rally outdoors after massive student protest at the high school... this move happening “for the first time in 10 years,” according to the student newspaper).
Odd things have indeed been happening on campus: A freshman boy brought a gun my daughter's high school campus last week, and the police descended after it was reported to administrators (luckily no one was hurt). And students have been stealing the soap dispensers and other fixtures from student bathrooms at the middle school, part of a TikTok challenge, just at a time when kids need to practice good hygiene. Teachers are now monitoring and checking in students at bathroom doors.
Despite all this, the parents I talk to are happy that in-person school is back so their kids will have a real learning experience and get to see their peers. (Not to mention so that we can work and go about our adult lives.)
But that doesn't make everything simple and easy and "normal" again. The moms and dads I know have been under tremendous pressure in the time of Covid and it hasn't stopped yet. It's even harder on parents who want to get the kids vaccinated, but they still aren't old enough to qualify.
An article in The Atlantic summed up the emotional situation well. Writer Dan Sinker titles his piece “Parents Are Not Okay.” He writes about the back-to-school he’s facing with his kids, ages 16 and 6: “It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable. All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay… Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can.”
As a mom, I want to protect my children; I want to fight for them; I want to prevent their suffering and help shape a healthy mindset in them, inspired by Stoic ideas. But now that they are teens living through a pandemic, they need to do all this for themselves. It’s a time for releasing them into the wild, with much higher stakes due to Covid and its impact on students.
I remind myself that they will make the best choices that they can. My husband and I have tried to give our children the tools to cope with this uncertain world. They know about being brave in a rough situation and sticking it out when things are hard. They want to be fair and value other humans. They care about doing the right thing, if they can figure out what that is in the confusing world. I hope the lessons of self-control have sunk in, too; that's not always easy for anyone. Like everything else, all of this is about balancing risks with rewards, dangers with common-sense courage.
It's also a test of all that our children have learned about how to handle an unstable situation with unpredictable humans all around them. I find myself recalling Marcus Aurelius' acknowledgement that other people aren't always aware of what's right/wrong and that their behavior reflects that, yet we still need to work with them. He wrote: "I can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together..." (Meditations 2:1).
As teens, my kids have to make their own choices on how to navigate school. Those choices will be their own, and to a large extent their levels of stress will too. In fact, there’s a very good chance they will handle their feelings better than I will my own, as their mom! That is reassuring. After seeing them off, I popped some Tylenol with a big gulp of water, and turned back to my copy of the Meditations, and to my own work.
If my Stoic practice teaches me anything, it’s that we can all do more to question and reframe our experiences of mental distress, to notice and shape these responses in ways that bring out our courage and wisdom rather than fear and anger. We can continuously work on letting go of the things outside our control that cause us to spiral into worry, and on improving the things we can choose for ourselves. Ultimately, our kids will carve their path using the tools we have given them as a guide… and, fortune willing, they will adapt to find a good flow of life in this chaotic world.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.