As parents gather at sultry summer's-end barbecues, the chatter turns from tanking 401(k)s and West Nile virus to the real downer of the moment: the annual autumn anxiety.
After a few easygoing months on cruise control, families are heading into a breakneck new school routine: 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Car pools. Basketball practice. Science projects. Lunchables. Snow days. Teacher conference days. Take-out chicken. Homework hassles. Bedtime hassles. And change. Lots of it.
"I'm in dread of the start of school," says Allen Black, an attorney in Millersville, Md., who has three kids going to three different schools this fall. He and his wife, Kay, who is in the Coast Guard Reserves, will start waking up at 5:30 next week to begin what he calls the "daily ballet" -- bus schedules, clean clothes, lunches and homework. They will start checking the family calendar each night to figure out who will be driving where, when.
"The kids are sort of eager to go back and see their friends," says Black, who is with the Washington office of Winston & Strawn. "But now I know when I get home from work, I will be doing homework assistance on everything from what causes revolutions in Europe to telling my 6-year-old, "Great job on the letter 'D.' "
Those lazy days by the pool and late evening ice cream excursions are coming to a crashing end.
"Fall is a time when family tensions run incredibly high because there are so many transitions taking place," says Stacy DeBroff, author of "The Mom Book" (The Free Press, 682 pp., $19.95) and founder of Mom Central, a company that offers advice for busy parents through books and an Internet site (www.momcentral.com). "Not just school kicks in, but also every extracurricular activity under the sun. Even the most well-adjusted kid will feel anxious about the new configuration of teachers and classmates."
The best way to prepare for the new reality, say experts like DeBroff, is to get on top of things before things get on top of you: Rethink how you organize your household and your family's work, school and home commitments. Consider better ways to divvy up responsibilities like making lunches and driving to piano lessons. Think strategically about a time and place for homework. Figure out somewhere to stash the coming avalanche of hockey sticks and footballs. Set up a home command center to keep track of everyone's comings and goings.
And do it today.
"The best gift we can give our kids in September is to adequately prepare for the nitty-gritty things so we can focus on the emotional ones," says Molly Gold, president of Go Mom Inc., a company in South Riding, Va., that promotes time-management solutions for parents and manages a Web site called www.gomominc.com.
"Get the clothes, the backpacks, the supplies, and find out what is happening in the school now. None of us like a deadline sprung on us. You don't have to have your kids freaking out as you run around and try to do everything at the last minute."
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