Four years ago, I dropped my excited 4-year-old off at school for the first time and drove to an empty home with tears in my eyes. This year, I found myself longing for the routine and consistency of the school year in mid-July; I began counting down to that first day of school with a passion. Those hours the little one is occupied are a chance to do something for me in a world where it feels like I am constantly doing something for someone else. But what do you do with your new-found freedom? Here are 7 ways to use your back-to-school free time:
Learn something newI know, it sounds cliché, but the kids will be expanding their horizons at school, and you deserve to do the same! Learning new things keeps our brains sharp, helps us plug into the dreams and hopes that nourish us and presents the opportunity to meet new friends. Explore options at a local community college. Revisit a childhood desire to learn to ride horses. Look up the nearest art classes. Take the time to feed your soul and nourish your mind.
Create a dream fundIf you are a working parent, school can be a significant relief to the budget if it means you are able to reduce childcare costs. If you’re anything like me, there are a hundred responsible places that cash can be applied. If you can, though, work with your spouse to come up with an amount that can be directly deposited into a “dream fund.” Most of us have some place or goal that we’ve always dreamed of visiting or fulfilling. Backpacking through Europe, going back to school, visiting family you haven’t seen in years -- whatever has been out of reach, start chipping away at the expenses a little at a time. Knowing that you are making that progress toward a long-held dream can give you a tremendous mental boost through the hard days.
Create a morning routineI’m not going to say that I love school year mornings. Getting a cranky 7-year-old up, dressed, reasonably presentable and out the door by 7 a.m. is not my definition of fun. But, the beginning of the school year offers the opportunity to redefine your mornings. If you work outside the home, look at small ways to build in reminders to be intentional about your morning. Wake up 15 minutes early so you have time for a quiet cup of coffee. Can you structure your day so you get a workout in between the bus/school drop off and work? Do the kids get out the door at a time that allows you take 10 minutes of quiet to read, pray or whatever sustains you before you head out for the day? If you’re not dealing with a commute or work start time, decide what you need in the mornings to make the most of your day and build a routine around that. Meditation, exercise, getting organized for the day, putting dinner in the crockpot -- know what you need!
Start a standing friend dateFor me, this was the big change that school brought to our life. I’ve always tried to keep my friends a priority because I know that I need my village to stay sane. But, while I had my newborn/toddler/preschooler, most of those get-togethers revolved around when the kids wouldn’t be monsters and what playgrounds were available. Once he started school, we were able to grab coffee after drop off or lunch at a local spot with no play place. Since I work remotely from home, it’s possible for me to go days with very little adult conversation besides my husband. To combat the isolation that comes with it, I made plans for a standing date with a few friends who also had somewhat flexible schedules. We decided on lunch on the third Tuesday of the month. There’s no problem with missing it if something comes up but we committed to making it a priority and usually stick to it. It’s become something that I count on when I have a rough day or week or the when the Army just becomes too much. We might talk about serious challenges or the latest ridiculous Bravo reality show, but it always strengthens relationships.
Tackle a goalDeployment goals are a frequently recommended way to make the most of your time apart. The same goes for other life changes, like kids starting school. The start of the school year means a rework of your schedule, making it the perfect time to start a new project or make time for a new activity. In the nine or so months of a school year where you have the school day structure to work with, you can make tremendous progress toward even substantial goals. Run a marathon, learn to weld, knock something off your bucket list; it’s about nourishing yourself.
Make fitness a priorityThis is not about weight loss or looking good. Rather, science shows us that exercise (even as simple as a brisk 30 minute workout) reaps mental, emotional and physical benefits. As busy parents, it’s too easy to let our overall wellness slide to the back burner. Joining a running group like wear blue: run to remember or Team RWB can build fitness and friendships. If running isn’t your thing, there are groups like Body Blast through Heart on a Mission that combine fitness with community through free workouts on installations across the country.
Rework your obligationsAs a chronic over-committer, I find myself regularly needing to re-examine how I allocate my time. A very wise friend told me years ago that every time we say yes to one, say no to another. Our time, energy and attention is valuable. It’s okay to revisit obligations -- like volunteering -- and decide that it is no longer a good fit. Keeping your time in line with what is most important to you helps to prevent burnout and frustration.
Your car can only run on one tank of gas for so long; eventually, you find yourself needing to top the tank off, or risk a complete shut-down. You have a similar limit. Military spouses have a tremendous capacity for absorbing challenges, but your tank needs to be regularly refilled. Just as you carefully prepare the kids for school with supply lists, new school clothes and sharpened pencils, taking the time to build self-care into your school year routine sets you up for a successful year.