September is a big month: the leaves start changing, football begins and of course, there’s school! Clothes shopping, school supplies, drop off, fall sports and back-to-school nights—oh my. The days (and nights) fill up so quickly there is rarely enough time to process it all.
That is until you scroll through social media—and see your feeds filled with perfectly posed first day of school pictures. You know the ones: bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kiddos holding their signs accompanied with an emotional post about life’s transitions.
What isn’t included in the post is all that went into those seemingly nonchalant images: perfect first day outfit, special celebratory breakfast, the lighting, extra time built in to ensure capturing the quintessential pic goes off without a hitch and of course, the sign. Whether it was hand written, printed from a Pinterest template, bought at Target or secured from a handcrafted artisan (yep, I saw some of those too) all of these special touches took more time than most give themselves credit for—and definitely require more planning than goes into the typical morning routine.
Our house has participated in this ritual for five whole years, starting with my oldest daughter’s first year of preschool. This year I was super excited to score a reusable, two-sided chalkboard for the momentous occasion. I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself. That was until my daughter knocked me down a peg. They are good at that, right? She asked, “Why do we make such a big deal out of the first day?”
It really is an excellent question. I started to explain cultures typically celebrate the beginnings and ends of things. Then, she chimed in with, “Like funerals?” Which sent the conversation heading down a path I wasn’t ready for either. More importantly, I started to wonder—why do we do this? The answer for me was twofold. I saw someone else do it and I like to celebrate milestones. (On the other hand, my husband says I like to make things complicated!)
While that may be true, I also recognize how fast these precious years are passing. My little ones are actually not that little any more. They are growing up, learning at tremendous speeds and maybe most importantly, asking really good contemplative questions like, “Why are we doing this?” I’ll admit in the moment, I brushed the question aside. It was time to walk to the bus and I had a million other thoughts, deadlines and questions filling my brain. In a quiet moment however I did revisit her question.
Why do we celebrate back-to-school the way we do? For some it’s definitely a time to celebrate. The summer childcare hustle is over and we can get back to a more defined schedule. For others, it’s bittersweet—siblings are separated, households are quiet and family time is less.
For us, it’s a mix. By the end of summer our family craved all that the school routine provides—structure, socializing and learning. A new school year also magnifies just how old our children are. Sure, I know my daughter is 7, but she is also now in the second grade. She’s a second grader! There is no denying it, she’s growing up—and out from under my wing.
As my kids grow up, my role also shifts. My kids need me less, or at the very least, their needs are different. So, at the beginning (and end) of each year I take a moment to celebrate. We plan a special meal, fill out signs and take pictures. For us this ritual helps us to remember the past, enjoy the present and dream about the future.
After some reflection, the first day of school picture ritual seems like a metaphor for parenting as a whole. You might spend hours planning the perfect picture, take a quick pic on the fly or dismiss it all together. There really are a million ways to go about it and all are correct. No matter how you sent your little ones off on their first day, I hope the school year is enriching, fun and without too many meltdowns.