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07 Aug, Sunday
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Montreal Families

The secret to calm school mornings

Is there a way to make mornings less hectic, despite having to get the kids dressed, fed and out the door?

I got the first glimpse of the disaster our morning was to become as I stepped, soaking wet and still bleary-eyed, out of the shower. My then 5-year-old daughter Maya was glaring at me, her fists pitched on her hips, two comically uneven pigtails jutting from the side and top of her head. Apparently, I had unwittingly chosen the wrong outfit for her to wear to school, a misplaced attempt on my part to cut short her usual morning fashion show and speed things along.

Instead, she’d found her own outfit and a quick check of the clock told me it was too late to even consider changing the flowery top and geometric patterned pants she had chosen. Why not encourage her creativity, I thought desperately. And the fact that she had done her own hair should be celebrated and encouraged, I told myself, even if the teachers mistook her for a case of neglect.

The bigger problem that morning was her ornery mood, fuelled by my meddling in her fashion choices. I knew what lay ahead: squabbles with her two siblings and a gradual deterioration of everyone’s mood. Indeed, breakfast became a battleground for my three girls. Instead of pouring their own cereal or toasting their own English muffins, they needed their father and me to referee and intervene, to make sure they actually put the ice packs in their lunch bags, fed the dog and grabbed their jackets on the way out.

I drove the girls to school 10 minutes late that morning, stressed out by the usual traffic levels that now seemed to conspire against us, hungry because I had been forced to skip my own breakfast, and feeling miserable because I had shouted at them in frustration. My husband and I had barely spoken to each other, and our poor puppy had been mostly ignored in the tumult.

An hour later, having barely composed myself at work over a hot cup of coffee, I realized the secret to family happiness and harmony on school mornings was exactly what my husband had been insisting on for years: 10 minutes. That is, we all had to set our alarms and get out of bed 10 whole minutes earlier.

Start the day off right

Ten minutes, it turns out, is the difference between breakfast eaten or skipped, between us actually sitting down together as a family for a few moments or rushing frantically about the kitchen juggling pitchers of milk and orange juice. It is also the difference between chatting with the girls about the day ahead or refereeing a squabble over who gets the last purple multivitamin. Ten minutes means I can kiss my husband goodbye for the day and the girls have time to cuddle the dog for a few minutes and brush his fur off their clean clothes (always a bonus).

Ten minutes sounds like a very, very small compromise to make in order to achieve this level of family harmony, but to someone who dreads mornings, this is not the case. My first conscious thought each early morning is a mental calculation of how many hours I must endure until I can get back to sleep. The siren call of the snooze button, promising bliss but delivering only nine scant minutes of restless slumber, is almost impossible to ignore. Every night, as my second wind of energy blows in with the late evening news, I am full of hope and promises to get up earlier; every school day morning, I curse my 11 o’clock self from the night before.

My husband, raised in the Protestant-work-ethic tradition of 6:30 a.m. rousings even on Sunday, has been trying to convince me of this for years. I always dismissed his insistent, chiding conviction that this would make things better, resenting him even though part of me knew he was right. Needless to say, he was delighted to hear I was finally coming around.

The truth is that those 10 minutes have made a world of difference in our mornings. We have buffer time to eat a proper breakfast, look for a missing homework book, and change Maya into pants that actually fit her when it is 10 degrees outside, instead of the size 3T shorts she would really, really love to wear (“But they are so bee-oo-tiful, mommy!”).

I am less likely to start my workday with the sinking feeling in my stomach that I’ve failed that morning’s motherhood test, taunting myself with the anecdotes I’ve now provided for their therapists in 20 years’ time.

It’s got me thinking what we could do with 20 whole minutes: Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes maybe or a leisurely stroll with the dog through the park. The possibilities are endless. But I’ll never know, because it turns out I love my snooze button just a little too much to test that theory.

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