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Why new term is a bittersweet lesson for many parents

 

As Northern Ireland children go back to school throughout the week, writer Alison Fleming and Cool FM presenter Pete Snodden talk about how they feel watching their kids returning to the classroom.

‘It would be lovely to press pause on this stage of their lives ... instead, I have precious photos’

Alison Fleming has three children, Annie (13), Finn (12) and Kitty (7). She says:

With a P4, Year 9 and Year 10 (second and third form in old money), I'm a veteran of back-to-school tears, tantrums and pride.

I can navigate the first day school run with the skill of a stunt driver, squeezing into the tightest of spaces. I know that a quick kiss, a warm hug and an "I love you" will last until pick-up time, and, equally, a prolonged sob-fest at the gates does no one any good, least of all me.

I am fully aware that my evening will be spent filling out forms, writing cheques for after-school activities and making sure uniforms are out and fit for wear the next day.

It's all part of the process, as is the obligatory school uniform pic to let grannies, aunties and old friends see them in all their box-fresh, unruffled glory before the shoes get scuffed and socks roll down to ankles.

There is, of course, a bit of a stealth boast about posting back-to-school pictures online, and anyone who says there isn't is not being entirely truthful. Of course I want to show them off in all their start-of-term newness. Let's face it, there's no point in snapping them in a couple of weeks' time when it might as well be the end of June, judging by the state of their uniforms.

Equally, I love to see images of my friends' children. It's a measurement of time, the capturing in amber of how big they've got, how smart they look, what new school they're starting.

I understand the frustration and antipathy towards the avalanche of pictures clogging up timelines. It's relentless at this time of year, and if it's not relevant to your life then of course you're not going to be interested. But it's fleeting, just a couple of days a year. And it's important to so many people.

These frozen moments mark the passage of time, and are landmarks in our lives. Our children love to look back on old photographs and marvel at the changes the years have brought. For them, starting P1 was a lifetime ago. For me, it seems like 10 minutes.

The cliches are the same now as they were nine years ago when my eldest daughter walked hesitantly through the school gates for the first time. Where did the years go?

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Proud mum Alison Fleming

My son starting primary school a year later brought its own challenges. Heavily pregnant with my final child, I feared labour would steal the glory of his big day. Luckily his little sister then, as now, took her own sweet time in coming, which allowed me to cherish those first few days, excitement shining from his freshly-scrubbed wee face.

With my youngest daughter, I felt as if I should be in mourning for the baby days. But her delight at finally going to 'big school' was so infectious it was impossible to feel anything other than happiness for what she had so longed to experience.

And part of that experience, a rite of passage she'd witnessed in the years leading up to her own school career, was the obligatory school uniform picture. Even now looking back at the tiny face, etched with expectation, it takes my breath away.

With big school, the emotions are very different. The memories of our own experiences navigating life are not yet far away enough for us to know that for our children, it won't always be easy.

There's a sadness as they hurtle towards adulthood, and the lengthening distance between us. Own friends, own interests, own path. The little hands we held in P1 as we walked through the gates are now shoved in pockets or blattering smartphones.

At least I've a few more years of hugs and kisses at the gate, although I'm not sure if I'm crossing a boundary by holding hands going into the playground. This is, as yet, uncharted P4 waters.

While a brand-new school bag and pencilcase will take the sting out of the experience for the littlest, for me the first day back is a continuous and poignant reminder that they're growing older and away from me at a speed disproportionate to the coal face of the baby years when time was spent wishing their little lives away, if only they could walk/talk/eat without redecorating the walls, etc.

It would be lovely to be able to press the pause button on this stage of their lives, but until that technology is available, we have the school pics on our timelines to share, look back on and remember with.

If you're a first-day-back-pic-hater, then defriend me or block me, I really don't mind. The joy I've had looking back at those pictures for this feature has made my day, and there'll be extra hugs and kisses tonight for everyone - which I'll steal while I still can.

'When I see the girls heading off it does make me feel a lot older'

Pete Snodden (36), lives in Bangor with his wife Julia (36) and their two daughters, Ivana (6) and  Elayna (2). He says:

Ivana went back to school this week - she is P3 now and Elayna is in preparatory class for a short while before she joins this term's pre-school group. For children now there is a phased return to school and Elayna has been in for just a short while for day one which goes up until she will be there for half a day.

When it comes to Ivana, she was bouncing as she was so excited to be going back to school. She couldn't wait to see her friends again, meet her new teachers, find out which table she will be at and it's great to see her so looking forward to it.

Seeing her this week brought memories of my own school days flooding back. I loved my time at school and thoroughly enjoyed it, but there were a few difficult times for me in secondary school and I dreaded going back and the summer holidays being over.

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Proud parents Pete and Julia Snodden

While I liked some elements of the new term, like getting a new pencil case and the blazer you thought you would never grow into, there was always slight trepidation. So it was refreshing for me to see the enthusiasm in Ivana for school.

When I see the girls heading off on the school run I don't feel sad but it makes me feel a lot older and I'm much more aware of how quickly time is going by.

When you have children everyone says to you how time will fly and that's really the case. This has been the fastest year of my life. When I was in my 20s a year was an eternity but not any more. With the girls' weekly clubs and school, before you know it it's Christmas.

I don't worry about my girls at school, but like most parents I want them to be accepted and it will be the same when they grow up. And if they are being bullied or picked on that they are resilient enough to take it and not be put off going into school. I will have to learn how to parent them through any issues like this and tell them that what one person says in class isn't the be-all and end-all.

In a way you don't know how to deal with adversity until it happens to you and, even afterwards, bad experiences in school can affect people well into adulthood. It's all part of the learning curve but most of all children should enjoy their school days.

My wife sent me a picture of Ivana in her P3 uniform with Elayna and I'm still not sure if I will put it on Facebook.

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Big day: Ivana (left) with sister Elayna

For those who don't particularly want to look at lots of children then it's probably best to avoid social media for the next few days. It's a great family record though and really nice to be able to look back and remember that first day at primary or secondary school.

But I can see that some people, perhaps those who would love to have kids, find it hard to look at. And there is also the real issue of keeping your kids safe online.

My girls are young so to a certain extent the decision at this stage is ours, but when your children get older and have their own social media accounts you have to consider their thoughts and feelings. Posting a picture may mean they are picked on at school or by others so when they are in their teens it's up to them rather than their parents.

This is definitely the time of year when a slew of pictures appear on Facebook and lots of people I know happily post pictures and others who keep the kids thing to themselves. However, if you find it irritating then its perhaps best not to look until the end of the week."

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