Back-to-school reality for mums and dads

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The Independent Culture
In the first of a weekly series, Emma Haughton focuses on a familiar January nightmare: getting back into a routine after the excitement of Christmas. Strangely, she discovers, the return to normality is worse for parents ...

Returning to work after a long break is never easy; factor in the angst of getting children back into the swing of school or child care, and it's not just the leftover turkey that's giving you indigestion on Sunday night. The problem with holidays is that they plunge us into an unreal and seductive world of leisure and lack of routine; without the pressure of deadlines and work commitments we tend to wind down, mentally and physically, and getting ourselves back into gear again involves a shock to everyone's system.

"Over Christmas we started to wake up later and later," admits Julie, a teacher with two daughters aged seven and five. "On Sunday at 9am everyone was still fast asleep, so on Monday when we set the alarm to get up at 7am, it felt like the middle of the night. It was hard to believe that two weeks ago we were waking up at that time completely naturally."

But oversleeping can be the least of your problems.

"On Monday I had to get up in the pitch dark with sheets of rain coming down, get the car out, drive Billy to nursery, find a free parking meter, wade through the puddles and settle him in," says Julia, an advertising executive, whose son is four. "Then I had to reverse the whole journey, find somewhere to park again miles down our street, and clear the car out out for my partner, before even starting the hour-and-a-quarter commute to work. It was grim, absolutely gruelling, and only tempered by a sense of relief that we were at least getting back to reality."

Julia copes by being meticulously organised. "I tidy the house, put clothes out the night before, arrange an easy supper, get my briefcase sorted out, find my house keys, travel card and security pass, even recharge my mobile phone battery. I just couldn't do it otherwise." She also puts Billy back into nursery for a few hours a couple of days before she's due back at work. "It eases him back into it gently, and gives me a bit of free time to sort things out."

But it's not just the practical preparation that need attention; according to Sue Johnson, who has worked as a childminder in Enfield for the last 20 years. It is often the emotional side of returning to normality that is more troublesome. "The children rarely have a problem coming back," she says, "They're often rather glad to return to their friends and daily routine. Although it can take a couple of days to get back into the way we do things here, children are very adaptable and rarely find it a problem."

She finds it's the parents who experience the most difficulties. "The time they spend with with their children during the holidays is extremely important, and coming back they face the whole guilt trip again about leaving their children." Many need extra reassurance that no one can replace their relationship with their child. "Some are quite reluctant to leave on that first morning. They cling to their children instead of just putting them down. It can be quite hurtful if a child just gets down and gets on with it, so they linger, because the longer they stay, the more chance they have of getting a negative reaction that in some ways actually makes them feel better."

But Johnson stresses the importance of looking at the situation from the child's point of view. Let them know during the holiday when they're going back, so it's not a shock on Monday morning, she advises, and make the separation as quick and clean as possible so as not to confuse the child.

And while nothing will take the sting out of the first day back, there are various ways you can raise everybody's spirits. Lisa Santry, a nanny from Dulwich in south London, suggests arranging a treat, such as a meal or trip to the cinema, at the end of the day - or a day out somewhere special the following weekend. When grey skies and dull routines are all we can see on the horizon, we all need to make sure there is something to look forward to besides the next holiday.