I sent my son to school today with no homework.
Wait. It’s worse than that. Every Friday they have a spelling test. Not only did he not do his spelling homework this week, which includes finding definitions and writing sentences, but we didn’t even practice how to spell the damn words.
Oh, but wait. It’s still worse.
I couldn’t even find the spelling list we’d made. Since we come up with his spelling words every week, no words meant no test.
I wrote an apology note to his teacher, citing a busy week. I requested he take the standard spelling test with the rest of his class, and concluded with acknowledgment that if he couldn’t, both he and I understood.
As a student, this situation would have devastated me.
Hell, even five years ago, or maybe even two, I would have wallowed in feelings of failing as a mother and as a functioning adult in general.
But from where I stand today, I’m not sweating it.
I know what you’re thinking. There are two possibilities floating around in your brain right now. Either I’ve learned an invaluable secret to life, or I’ve fallen so far off the keeping my sh*t together wagon that I am lounging in the dirt path, zip up hoodie thrown over dirty pajamas, raising my coffee mug to the wagon as it rolls off into the sunset.
It’s actually the former, thankyouverymuch. And it’s a secret that I am happy to pass along.
Epictetus once said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters,” which is all well and profound, but I didn’t really connect to this idea until I heard it phrased as thus: “Most stress in life doesn’t come from what happens to you, but from how you feel about what happens to you.”
But Kelly, I know you’re saying, that’s crap.
Life is stressful. People get fired, relationships fall apart, health deteriorates, and kids skip a week’s worth of homework.
All true. Stress happens. As does grief and anger and feeling totally overwhelmed.
I discovered that it was my own reactions to those emotions that were really putting me through the ringer.
My husband travels a great deal for work. He’s gone often, which leaves me as a solo parent more times than we’d like. My kids are active in school clubs and after-school activities, which often overlap on the calendar.
Thursdays, for example, I coach my daughter’s after-school club, and then I hustle my two kids into the car to drive 25 minutes south to ice-skating lessons, after which we hustle back to the car to drive another 25 minutes back into town for Boy Scouts. We are at a dead sprint from 2:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., when they’re finally in bed for the night.
We eat dinner in the car—most often sandwiches and cheese sticks because there’s not even time for drive-through food. And when the weather sucks, as it often does in New England, we are late—to everything.
There was a moment when I began to react to that feeling of being overwhelmed by Thursdays. I felt the stress rising in me, and more interestingly, anger. I was mad that I had to handle this all solo. And then I felt sorry for my poor, stressed-out self.
It was at that moment that I realized I had a choice. I could be resentful and angry that I have stressful Thursdays, or I could accept it as fact and move on. So that’s what I did.
You see, most of the stress that I felt about Thursdays wasn’t really caused by the schedule itself but rather how I felt about the schedule. Stop that whole secondary reaction to my feelings. Stop that whole extra layer of stress.
I am still overwhelmed by Thursdays, but I’ve decided that I’m okay with being overwhelmed.
Let me say that again: It’s okay to be overwhelmed.
Somewhere along the way, our culture decided that negative emotions should be resisted and avoided. We think: “I am mad about something that happened, and I am so mad that I have to feel mad! I should feel calm and happy! It’s not fair!”
The downward spiral isn’t caused by the base emotion. It’s caused by how you feel about experiencing that emotion.
So the secret, if you can call it that, is to stop reacting to your reaction. Stop stressing about stress. Negative emotions and reactions happen. They’re a normal part of a normal life.
Maybe you’re stressed out with your schedule, too.
It’s okay to be stressed.
Maybe you’re worried about finances or a family member’s health.
It’s okay to worry.
Maybe you are mourning the loss of a loved one, or even the loss of your own hopes and dreams.
It’s okay to grieve.
The point is not to fend off your feelings—the point is to accept them.
If you can let go of the expectation that you should be able to avoid these negative emotions, then when they do come—and of course they will—then you can tell yourself: “this feeling is okay.”
And when you can do that, you save yourself a whole universe of heaped-upon, secondary angst.
I sent my kid to school today with no homework. He and I both let the ball drop. I, as a parent, fell short. I feel guilty about that.
And that’s okay.