Real Life

So Much For That Perfect First Day Of School

Raise your hand if you didn’t have a picture-perfect back-to-school morning.

Siblings laughing and play-fighting on the living room floor before the first day of school
Tetra Images - Tim Pannell/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

One of the biggest meltdowns of my parenting career to date was the first morning of school this year. We are talking full-on tears and yelling (me, not the kids) in the driveway. Meanwhile, my social media feed was full of photo after photo of my friends’ kids posing sweetly in new outfits, holding “First day of school” boards, displaying all their likes, future career ambitions, and put-together parents in family shots. While I had all these similar intentions for the first day, reality struck, as it tends to do. Here’s what happened.

Waking up for school with four boys under 7 — and one parent at home during that window —means being in exactly four places at once. It also means relying a bit on the two older ones to do basic tasks like putting cereal into their own mouths, locating shoes, and other apparently completely unreasonable asks. But thirty minutes into the hour we’d allotted to prepare before the bus, there was no movement. Kids were still rolling on the literal floor half naked, arguing whether Lebron or MJ was a better basketball player. And I freaked out.

We’d discussed, and written out on a Pinterest-worthy chart (complete with pictures for the non-readers), exactly what would happen in the morning. I even wrote about this chart for Scary Mommy. This tip was recommended by Cara Goodwin, psychologist and mother to her own three children who specializes in child development, so I was sure it would work. “Talk to your child about what to expect on the first day. Write out the schedule for them and have them add the pictures or create a book together describing what school will be like. These strategies will help your child to know what to expect and visualize it,” she recommends. And it did work — eventually — but just not that first chaotic morning. Not only was nobody picking up their dirty pajamas, they weren’t even downstairs. Half an hour later and the only thing that had happened was teeth (probably honestly a fourth of their actual teeth) had been brushed.

At this point, I started to get the “morning sweats.” Since being a postpartum mom (almost a decade ago) I’ve always been hot in the mornings. No, I don’t have a hormone imbalance and yes I’ve checked — I just start to rush around and look like I’ve just come from a workout. Except the workout is mornings at home.

Then, in my peripheral, I saw a pair of brand new headphones, freshly unwrapped from Amazon for the school supply list, get chucked across the kitchen. They hit a glass of milk, of course, which had no lid because I couldn’t find one in the flurry. So now, the milk, the headphones, and the sweaty mom all converged into one rage-y moment. I looked over to see my normally level-headed 6-year-old, the calm and funny one of the bunch, shrieking “I will NOT and I mean NOT take those headphones to school. They DON’T FIT.” The offending headphones had been tried on and earned his stamp of approval just days before when we packed them in the backpack, but here we were.

I was in awe of how our new back-to-school routines, from organized cubbies and folder systems to calendars and breakfasts with multiple food groups on school mornings, went awry so quickly. Goodwin says this is to be expected: “Parents should expect children with many different and often conflicting emotions that may even present as physical symptoms (such as a stomachache) or challenging behavior. Parents should also expect that the transition will be gradual and that many of these issues will extend beyond the first day or week of school.”

It didn’t stop after the flying headphones, I’m sorry to say. My oldest son had a wardrobe malfunction waiting for the bus and yelled at me about a scrambled egg, and my husband showed up from work for our “getting on the bus first day of school” pictures to a massive mess in the kitchen, a crying mom in the driveway, and some stomping kids. Amidst the tears, we took the pictures anyway, as a part of a pledge to myself many years ago that even if one, two, or shoot all four of the kids are crying or looking away, we will still take the picture.

Photo Courtesy Of Alexandra Frost

That day, my social media post looked much different than I planned, and from most of my friends’ cheery first-day well-wishes. I opted for honesty, my favorite angle on the chaos and privilege of parenting, and wrote: “If your first day back is far from the hallmark moment you’d pictured and more like our tears and chaos and battle over a scrambled egg, this one’s for you,” posted alongside a picture of our whole family, me with red eyes and my three-year-old high-pitch screaming. Our exceptionally sweet bus driver waited at the curb for this moment to wrap up, because of course, we were late.

The second and third and fourth days went much more smoothly, probably because I came home that first day with a very loud alarm clock for the older two and hosted a family meeting at the dinner table. After almost a week of consistent morning expectations, today we were out at the bus stop calmly throwing a football ten minutes early. The whole incident reminded me, again, that my expectations of how something will go are often way different from what really happens, especially on such an emotionally loaded day as the first day back for kids.

If your picture-perfect back-to-school moment was also a hot mess instead, or if you are still gearing up for the first day, Goodwin has some tips:

  • Talk to your child about what they are excited, nervous, or wondering about.
  • Validate that you have had those same fears and that you are there for them.
  • Help them visualize what to expect the first day with a “walk through.”
  • Read kids a book about the first day.
  • Seek professional help if your child’s school refusal is becoming more intense.

Or, in the end, you can just try to survive go with my relative’s comment on that social media post to help with the chaos and confusion: “At least it’s the first day back.” Every mom everywhere can get behind that.

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.

Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.