In normal times – which seem like something from a mythical past – I’d spend this weekend busy with the familiar rituals that mark the end of the summer holidays. After all, my five children (Jimmy, 19, Dolly, 16, Evangeline, 7, Dash, 6 and Lester, 3) have been absent from their respective university, schools and pre-schools for ten weeks. A long stretch of time at home like this, characterised by unending sunny days and a great deal of chaos, is usually only ever called the summer holidays.
The rituals that mark the end of that long holiday are important. And shhhh, don’t tell the kids, but sometimes those rituals can feel like more like celebrations. I know I am definitely not, in early September, the only mother at the school gates breathing a quiet sigh of relief that I’ll now have the house to myself all day, won’t be expected to be the source of a never-ending supply of cold drinks and tasty snacks and will have finally regained control over how many clean towels the children rip from the airing cupboard daily.
Those end-of-hols habits are, I think, especially memorable: no one can forget the tight embrace of new school shoes after weeks running barefoot on the lawn, the pleasing rainbow of a new set of extra-sharp pencils, or the feeling of sitting up in a hairdresser’s chair to have the tangles of summer cut into a neat bob.
These are rituals that draw a line under the summer holidays, but which also quietly celebrate the optimism of the new academic year, which gives us a second chance at getting the year right after January’s broken resolutions.
But now, facing a return to school for some of my children next week, I’m feeling very confused by these rituals. So far Dash, who is in Year One, and Lester, who is at pre-school, are the only two of my children for whom I’ve had official confirmation of schools reopening. Goodness knows that they could both benefit with a little ritual and routine.
There are no hairdressers open, so they won’t be sitting up in a barber’s chair. Instead, I will be the one cutting not just tangles but thick dreadlocks out of the back of their hair – neither has seen a brush for over two months. I have no idea where their uniform or PE kit is, and that daily hunt through the house for lost shoes, book bags and water bottles at 8 a.m. is one of the things I was most delighted to turn my back on when lockdown started.
Because although the past few weeks have been hard and confusing and often upsetting, they have also given me a chance to experience motherhood through a completely new lens. Home-schooling is not an experiment I would ever have embarked on myself, and there have been many days since late March when I’ve swallowed a quiet sense of despair at the fact I had to carve a set of so-called lessons for Evangeline, Dash and Lester out of the mess, chaos and spilt milk of the kitchen.
And yet, I’ve also loved being able to look at the familiar, sometimes wearying landscape of domestic life from a totally new perspective, as if I’ve suddenly stepped up onto the kitchen table to see them, their relationships with one another and with me, in a new light. When lockdown was at its tightest – for all of April and much of May – Jimmy and Dolly took over several hours of teaching a day, running bushcraft, PE and art lessons for their younger siblings (and for which I paid them). The sense that, within family life, we were all pulling in the same direction made me incredibly happy.
Now that this strange, often surreal time is drawing to an end, I won’t be marking it with the usual rituals of the end of the summer holidays – we’ve only just got the paddling pool out and the sun is blazing. And I know that getting Dash and Lester back into grey school uniform is going to be a battle. Perhaps Evangeline will follow them too, back into Year Two, before the end of July, but a part of me is feeling melancholic rather than relieved that this unexpectedly special time is over.
Until, that is, I remember that this is not the end of summer, but just the start of it. Within a few short weeks of being back at school, they will be off again, for another long stretch of spilt milk, wet towels and endless demands for lollies and snacks, otherwise known as the summer holidays.