Saving My Sanity This Summer

Saving My Sanity This Summer

When I first became a Teacher-Mom, I had grand visions of filling my summers with family fun and quality time, but I was so far off from reality. As my girls get older, the challenges of the summer change, but by and large, my summer always seems consumed with entertaining my kids, feeding my kids, cleaning up after my kids or begging them to clean up after themselves, and refereeing my children’s constant bickering. While we still do fun things, the summers are never the idyllic images of my imagination, and rest and relaxation for myself always seem to take a back seat.

This past year has been an especially difficult one for me, both personally and professionally, and many of the challenges I faced were things well beyond my control. It took a huge toll on my physical and mental health. I was functionally in survival mode for many months, and by Spring Break, I kept telling myself and my family over and over that I just needed to make it to the summer; summer would give me a chance to breathe and reset.

I was so focused on getting to the light at the end of the tunnel that I forgot how challenging the summers can be, then I got a rather abrupt reminder from my kids in the midst of Senior week, and I decided that if I was really going to be able to focus repairing my physical and mental health, I was going to have to establish to rules and routines that provided structure for my daughters without running me ragged. While they haven’t been perfectly instituted in the first week, my kids have been receptive enough to them for me to think they might actually work.

Defining Rest

One of the first things I did with my kids was not to establish a rule or routine but to give them a clear definition. My kids know this year has been really rough for me. I’ve been as open and honest with them as was reasonable for their age, and unfortunately, some of the personal issues, such as the loss of loved ones, impacted them as well. Still, I needed them to understand what I really needed from this summer. I shared with them that rest doesn’t just mean getting to sleep in or taking an afternoon nap; rest means getting a real break from doing things for and thinking about things for others. It means that I need them to be more independent, to do things they are capable of doing without asking me to do it for them, and to think about potential solutions before coming to me with a problem.

I Won’t Play Referee

The number one thing my girls need to work on in terms of coming up with solutions before coming to me is in their near-constant bickering with one another. Like most siblings, they know exactly how to push each other’s buttons, and they both tend to overreact to every perceived injustice. While there will certainly be some conflicts for which I will need to intervene, most of them are typical sibling spats that they just need to work out between the two of them. When they come to me whining about these issues, I might suggest better ways for them to communicate their frustration with one another, but I will also tell them “I won’t play referee.” I may also have told them that the phrase “It’s not fair!” is banned for the summer.  It’s only been a week, and I know this one is going to be the most challenging for them, but I’m also hoping it will have more long-term effects, teaching them to work out their own struggles rather than running to me to determine who was in the right.

Don’t Walk Away from a Mess

One of the most frustrating things about being home all summer is how messy my house gets every day. I feel like I finish cleaning up breakfast, turn around, and my kitchen is already overflowing with dishes again. There are also always shoes and toys all over the floor, and I really can’t comprehend what on earth my children do that makes their bathroom look like it exploded every day. This isn’t a new problem, but it used to be contained to the weekends during the school year, and I’d focus on the specific thing that was left behind: “Take your plate with you when you get up from the table,” “Put your toys away when you’re done with them,” and “Wipe up the counter when you’re finished getting ready.” I found myself getting frustrated having to address the same issues over and over again and yelling that I wasn’t a maid! One day, in a bout of frustration over several messes that had been left, I cried out “just don’t walk away from a mess,” and suddenly, I had my new summer mantra. I’ve already found that saying it is more effective than lecturing about the same issues repeatedly and leaves me less frustrated. While the idea hasn’t fully impacted my children’s actions yet, it has influenced their mindsets, as I‘ve heard them telling each other, “Don’t walk away from a mess.”

Snackle Boxes

The abrupt reminder that inspired these rules and routines centered around snacks for my kids. After spending a Friday evening attending a special program for my students, I got up early the next morning and spent four hours at my school’s graduation ceremony. I hadn’t set both feet in the door upon my return home when my youngest asked me if she could have a snack. Having reached the end of a very busy school week, I told her to ask her father and went to take a much-needed nap. I slept for several hours, and when I woke up the same kid asked me for a snack as soon as I emerged from my bedroom. It was this moment that made me realize that if I did not establish some very clear rules and routines for the summer, the constant need to make decisions for everyone else was going to send me over the edge when I desperately needed a break.

Left to their own devices, my girls will eat all day, so guidance on what and how often they eat is really important, but I didn’t want to have to keep track of what everyone was eating or to constantly be interrupted from other things in order to make decisions about their snacks. I remembered seeing something a few years ago where a mom filled tackle boxes with snacks for her kids for a road trip, and I thought the same basic principle could apply to daily snacks this summer. I ordered a set of color-coded bento boxes, including one for myself, and stocked my fridge and pantry with snack options, making sure to prewash and cut the fruits and veggies. I gave them just a few basic rules to follow:

  1. one of the big sections has to be filled with vegetables
  2. neither of the big sections could be loaded with things like goldfish or pretzels
  3. When the Snackle Box is empty, you’re done snacking for the day
  4. there is no need to empty the Snackle Box every day; if you don’t finish something, you can save it for the next day.

I also made them a cheat sheet of snack options which I posted on the fridge for them to reference if they are unsure what to put in the box, and we talked about how some things, like bananas, don’t need to go in the fridge, so they can leave the space for it in their box and set it aside on the counter for when they want it.

I wasn’t completely sure how well this would go over, but so far, it’s been really successful. We started our first week of Snackle Boxes on a Sunday, and by Wednesday we were completely out of cucumbers, carrots, and grapes, all things that I usually buy with the best intentions but end up throwing out because I’m the only one who ever remembers to check the fridge instead of the pantry for snacks. My girls have really taken ownership of their Snackle Boxes. They are excited about filling them up every morning, and they are making good, balanced choices about what they put in their box every day. Of course, the best part about the Snackle Boxes is that the onus is no longer on me to track what and how often my kids are eating.

Minimums and Maximums

Screen time limits have always been a rule in my house, and we rely heavily on parental controls to set the limits on the technology in the house, but I was very firm this year that I would not be approving extra time. As with the snacks in their box, when their screen time limits are reached, they are done for the day and need to find something else to do. Of course, my favorite things to recommend to them are to read a book, to play outside, or to clean their rooms, and these first two also have some minimums attached to them.

I became an English teacher because I love to read, and reading a good book is a great way to help me relax and unwind, so naturally, I encourage my kids to do the same. I challenged all of us to read at least one age-appropriate chapter book a week. They’ve both already added their first book to the list, and I just have a few chapters left in mine. There is no consequence if we don’t meet our goals, but they’ve both found a series they like, and they enjoy plopping down on the couch with me to read our books.

Playing outside is a bit trickier to enforce. As much as I’d love to be that 80’s-era mom who tells her kids to stay outside all day because it’s good for them, the Louisiana heat is absolutely unbearable and even unsafe at times. Instead, my husband and I decided that they have to play outside for at least one hour every day, and they are encouraged to spend more time outside. We suggest they play outside in the morning, before it gets too hot and before the afternoon storms roll in, and most days we take care of it by heading to the neighborhood pool. The outside activity ensures exercise and makes for calmer afternoons because the sun zaps their energy, so they’re content to read, draw, or use their screen time.

First Things First

This rule wasn’t for my girls, it was for me. I struggle with feeling that I have to be productive all the time. Unfortunately, my chosen career and motherhood have only reinforced this feeling. I don’t really know how to relax, and I always look at the summer as an opportunity to get all the household projects done and to get ahead on the next school year. I always want to get it all done before the next school year, so I work on these things every moment I get, never really allowing myself the rest I need. My husband even jokes, “It’s summer break, so Mama’s going to rearrange the kitchen again!” This summer I do have some household projects that have been neglected this past year and some curriculum work that has to be completed, but I’m really forcing myself to take a step back and not stress about it. I can handle the curriculum work by doing a little bit of work most days, but I don’t even need to do it every day. And I can tackle household projects in small chunks, even if it means I just organize one drawer or cabinet every few days. I can still feel accomplished and productive by chipping away at small tasks, and it’s okay if my whole house doesn’t get deep-cleaned this summer, but my first priority this summer has to be taking care of me, even if that means other things get put on the back-burner for a change.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.

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