Published on October 7th, 2021 | by Stephanie Sprenger1
Greeting My Kids After School Is Like a Bucket of Cold Water
So apparently there’s this trend called the “cold plunge” that’s become quite popular. You guys have probably heard of it, even if you don’t live next door to Boulder, Colorado, woo-woo wellness capital of the world, like I do. Maybe you saw Zac Efron do it in that one episode of his Netflix show. It’s sort of like the polar plunge, except spiritual, apparently, and cleansing.
Basically, after spending most of your day in pleasant and comfortable conditions, you plunge your body into freezing cold water and then hang out there for a while.
So, that’s how I feel when I greet my children after school.
Like, here I’ve been, working in my bed for the last four straight hours, in complete silence, without any human interaction. My brain is focused on my own work—which I enjoy!—and aside from what my friend Shannon calls the “perpetual negotiations happening inside my head,” I am calm.
Then, shit!, it’s 3:42 and time to walk to the bus stop to greet my daughter. I mentally psych myself up to ditch my work brain and, say it with me, “Be present” with my child. Of course I can! Of course I want to! I shake off the flurry of words and emails and spreadsheets and the thoroughly and inexplicably ravaged kitchen that filled my afternoon. I am so ready to shut off my thoughts and be with my child.
And then PLUNGE, there I am. With her, devoured and eclipsed by her. She is a tsunami.
I had almost forgotten how hard it was. For much of the past year, there were no morning drop-offs or afternoon pick-ups. We traded the dreaded rushing and busyness of our lives for the suspended reality of life at home, together all the time. If our usual after-school pickup reunion feels like a bucket of cold water, I can only characterize the 2020-21 hellscape as one, long, tepid bath. Perhaps in a sewer. But I suppose we at least got used to it after a while?
After spending so many months together, with boundaries evaporating and transitions melting into an amorphous glob of half-assed meals, tasks, and sub-par hygiene routines, I honestly didn’t remember what it was like to endure the usual afternoon transition. But within two days of this new school year, the memories came crashing back with the added intensity of 17 more months of hormones and complex emotions.
It’s fall 2019, another lifetime. My husband, just home from work, meets us at the bus stop. Our third grader is skipping ahead of us, singing, kicking rocks, so I take the opportunity to say “Hey, hubby, did I tell you that—” and she immediately cuts me off, apparently feeling a pressing urge to share with me that she is now a self-taught lasso aficionado. The conversation does not end with this information, and she continues on SO LOUDLY and with such great enthusiasm and strong-winded verbosity that I can barely fathom that just minutes ago I was completely alone.
This whole “cryotherapy” thing is supposed to be very cleansing and healthy for you, something about cellular regeneration? That may be true for the literal cold plunge, but as for the metaphorical one, it’s a hard no from me. The cold immersion of my daily transitions with my daughters is far from refreshing; it raises my blood pressure and releases my profanity valve every single time. Some days I go straight from work, grocery shopping, and putting dishes away to “I had the worst day ever.” “What was wrong with it?” “EVERYTHING.” Followed by backpack-slinging, tears, crumpled homework assignments, and a combination of emotional and physical mess that threatens to swallow me.
About a month before the pandemic shutdown, I spent a few rare hours with a friend on a Monday evening. As soon as I returned home—sadly just in time for the shitshow that is bedtime—I was met by a freezing cold tidal wave of complaints. “My nose is stuffy!” my oldest lamented. “My leg hurts! And my arms both hurt! And look! My hair is all tangled and I didn’t lay my clothes out,” my youngest bawled.
Zero seconds. That’s what I had between thought-provoking discussion in the heated seats of my friend’s SUV and the cold plunge into my children’s presence.
I expected this violent jolt to the nervous system when I was raising babies and toddlers. But I had no idea it would persist, stretching well into the parenting tweens and teens years.
I work part time, which I characterize as the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds: weaving partial career time and partial kid time into every week means there are a shit-ton of daily transitions—a marathon of cold-water plunges. And yet, shockingly, years later, even entry into the “oh my god I have my life back!” era I’d heard so much about back when I was lugging around a carseat with leaky boobs and a stretched-out tank top, I still find the sudden transition to being with my children incredibly fucking jarring.
Take for instance, the segue way from workday to “alone time in the car with my teenager,” who is one of those blessed suburban myth children who actually tells her mother everything.
I adore this. I am grateful for this. But the dive into the waters of high school, friendship drama, self-doubt, and academic stress is taxing, and I find myself pulled under into her struggles, and yes, I realized the word for this is enmeshment and yes, I am working on boundaries, sheesh. Even though I brace myself for the impact of my daughters’ need for me at the end of the day, it frequently knocks me down. Are there people out there who gracefully transition to this after-school Crappy Hour? Maybe this is why edibles were invented.
It’s hard, as a highly sensitive ENFJ—Myers-Briggs people, where you at?—to downshift from my tightly wound thoughts to the visceral, demanding world of my gorgeous, complex, noisy, expressive daughters.
August 2021 marked the first time in 17 months that I dropped both girls off at school, five days a week, leaving me alone with my thoughts, my work, my house, and my dog, to retrieve them seven hours later. Surely even if the return to regular in-person school, structure, and socialization turned out to be an emotional shitstorm, I could handle it with grace after that much time alone!
Clearly, I overestimated my ability to modulate this return to daily transitions. On the second day of school, I enjoyed brunch with a friend—including a delightful alcoholic concoction called the “Mule-mosa”—and then went on to have an acupuncture massage. In short, it was a most decadent celebration of their return to school. I should have been refreshed enough to navigate the tears and meltdowns with finesse and Zen-like immovability. Reader, I was not.
It makes me question whether I am cut out for this (spoiler alert: it’s too late now, sucker!). It makes me wonder why it’s so hard for me to switch gears and be present and turn off the frenetic thoughts buzzing in my brain whenever my girls and I are reunited.
Perhaps we who dwell inside our own heads (you know, the tightly wound anxiety-types) do better with a lazy-river style experience than a full-on cold plunge. Maybe that will always be my struggle—to find a way to gracefully flow into my children and back into myself with less of a cliff-diving nervous system response.
Or maybe, before I dip myself into that cold tub, I’ll take a nice, deep breath. Or an edible.