Mastering a new kind of back-to-school…

My youngest had several zoom orientation sessions for her school year, which starts tomorrow. She’s entering sixth grade, which in Texas in middle school, and is at a new school. Learning to manage a new school, trying to meet other kids at a new school, and trying to understand the expectations and processes of virtual schooling has made sixth grade a pretty daunting new task.

We’re very lucky to be able to offer her an education that, by all appearances, will be engaging and offer her the chance to do substantive work – even if it is remotely. She also appears to have the technology expectations well in hand, her public school appears to have done a marvelous job of preparing her – she, well, zoomed through the online training with zero problems or hiccups.

So, while this isn’t the ideal situation and it’s certainly not what I would have chosen for her start to middle school, it seems to me that the kids in our house will be alright. My husband and I, on the other hand, seem to be entering into a period of fatigue and malaise at the start of our sixth month at home. I think it’s the inability to plan for the future that’s really stressful. We don’t know when this end or when we will start to recognize our daily routine. We don’t know when we’ll be confronted with either new things or familiar routines.

Watching my daughter master new processes with ease reminded me of a thing that’s been missing in my own routine lately. Learning new things. When I teach a DBT skills class, we spend a significant amount of time on emotional regulation techniques. These are the items of self care and life construction that allow us to feel generally good so as to not be SO upset about the daily slings and arrows of life. If I feel generally cared for and satisfied, I’m less likely to be upset if another driver cuts me off on my commute home than if I’ve had a stressful day and am feeling resentful and tired from the demands on my time and lack of self care.

I think this is one of the ways that travel is such an extraordinary way to practice and learn self care routines. Being among a new culture requires multiple acts of learned mastery in a single day. I remember the first time I successfully navigated the Parisian subway on my own and without reference to a guidebook for specific route instructions. Or the first time I managed to order off a menu in Spain without reference to the English language version. Being amongst a new culture is a fantastic way to witness new ways of doing the things that you do every day at home and to have to engage your mind to learn how to incorporate those ways into your behaviors.

At the beginning of this whole pandemic nightmare, I think people were energized by adapting to their new normal. Even if that new normal wasn’t what we would want it to be, it was new. We were engaged in understanding our changed culture and practices. There was also a burst of distraction energy – we worked to try new things so as to keep entertained and because it felt like a chance to do those new things that wouldn’t last forever. Now the monotony of this and realizing it might very well last a long time have set in and we feel too tired to try new things.

I would argue, though, that this is exactly when we need that bread-baking, house painting, new thing kind of energy. We need to build opportunities to master new skills into our routines, even as we feel so fatigued and run down. Counter-intuitively, the more we do that and the more we’re able to break up the time and give our brains new challenges, the better we’ll feel.

We can’t travel, which would be a great way to introduce something new, but I’ve been watching some Rick Steves (the PBS travel show host, he’s always been a not-so-secret favorite of mine from my first trip to Europe on which his book, Europe Through the Back Door was a guide and founding text) on a regular basis because it gives me a vicarious thrill of the new. It inspires me to dream, a thing that seems to have been run out of me by the constant drum beat of staying home and staying safe (which are so important). I’ve been trying to find episodes I haven’t seen about places that I haven’t been to. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is also good for this vicarious travel.

Learning new skills – photo editing, painting, puzzles, new games, have also helped a little with the general feeling of sadness permeating another school year starting at home.

Watching my daughter I was struck by how resilient and resourceful she is. How she’s adapting and moving forward. I’m finding it harder to let go of my ideas about how it should be and how I wish it was. Normally I love the start of the school year. The thrill of new discovery and new routine. The joy of rejoining friends after a summer away. I think part of my sadness is grief as well as monotony. This doesn’t feel how I always expect the start of a school year to feel.

Additionally, I’m grieving not just the school year we didn’t get, but the loss of some of my belief that America will always pull together and solve any crisis it is confronted with. I haven’t felt that positivity lately and it’s hard to process that loss without the counterbalance of the optimism of the opportunity the new school year shows me each year that America can bring.

So I guess the point of all of the above is that we have to just take the next step forward, even if its sad and not the step we wish we were taking. Try to add some new to our routines wherever we can find it and just carry on.

Published by alexm1008

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Houston, Texas. I specialize in helping clients develop skills and strategies to feel more in control of their emotions and behaviors. I am also a wife and mother of two who loves to run and travel (particularly to Disney World with my kids and without).

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