THE BLOG

Snow Days and the Parent Trap

02/20/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013
  • Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. Author, 'Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth's Climate.' Professor, Warren Wilson College.

I experience minor melt-downs on snow days.

In Western North Carolina, snow days create a parent trap where I play stay-at-home mom and working mother at the same time, managing the excitement of two girls who don't have to go to school with my commitments at the college where I teach.

I sometimes come unhinged by 9 a.m., three hours after receiving the computerized message announcing the closure of schools due to concerns about school buses on icy roads.

"I'll just stay home," my 13-year-old told me last Friday with the conviction of a corporate executive. Within seconds, I became convinced she was staging a manipulative war against me: I had a 9:30 a.m. class to attend and needed her to accompany her 7-year-old sister to campus.

Faced with the same teenage resolve on past snow days, I'm embarrassed to admit that I have yelled and issued meaningless ultimatums, as I was desperate to get to class. However, last Friday, she put on her coat and trudged along behind us. (Full disclosure: I also dangled a $5 bill for snack purchases at the campus store.)

Ultimately, my daughters spent the eight-hour day at a variety of places on campus: the living room of a friend, the campus library, the cafeteria and mailroom, and the computer lab. I checked on them in two-hour increments but felt trapped as an emotional occupant of two places at one time.

The truth is that I have it easy on snow days, even when I think the logistics are challenging. I've never missed a class due to a snow day, but if I did, I wouldn't lose my job like some parents in our rural community. While I live far from extended family, I have a community of friends who can help me. And my children are older now: They can sit outside a classroom or in a library without disturbing others.

So if it's this easy, why do I still come unhinged? A bachelor friend of mine posed this question: "You've been handling snow days and sick days for 13 years. Haven't you gotten used to it by now?" he asked.

For me, these days reveal the thin ice that I traverse each day: I think that I've got life under control, but I'm actually operating with high expectations and a teeny bit of anxiety as I manage the logistics of a small family.

Walking On Thin Ice With Humility

Snow days and sick days reveal that the tight domestic ship I captain could run aground at any time. As a single mom, I pride myself on having mostly healthy meals, a supportive community, an organized house, early bedtimes and lots of playtime outdoors. But the smooth logistics crumble when a child gets sick or a sheet of ice covers the mountainous roads. It's humbling to realize that I'm running a household on thin ice most of the time. As I enter my late 40s, I'm slowly learning that humility may be my greatest asset as I age.

Releasing Ourselves From The Expectations Of Others

In our culture, we're taught to aim for exemplary performance, especially at work. Writing "perfectionist" on a job application reflects strength of character. Snow days unravel my own high expectations for myself. When I am supposed to be a mother and a teacher at the same time, I have to relinquish expectations: if I can figure out how to show up, I'm golden. Part of this recognition, for me, lies in letting go of my perpetual need to please and cover obligations that leave me fragmented rather than fulfilled.

Buffering Isolation With Shared Community

These snow days feel isolating, even though I work in a community where kids are tromping all over campus when the public schools are closed for a day. The college cafeteria is like romper room on snow days. Years ago, faculty even tried to organize a college babysitting co-op for snow days, which never materialized due to institutional concerns about liability. We're often expected to bring our work home, but not our home to work, even in supportive work environments. At my workplace, finding co-workers in the same boat provides outlets for venting and opportunities to share childcare.

Last Friday afternoon, I walked to the computer lab to thank a colleague who had let my children hang out with his daughter for two hours. My girls handed his daughter two red, chewy Twizzlers purchased on a progressive campus that reveres local and organic food. "Is that OK for her to eat?" I asked him. "It's totally fine," he said, as if red dye No. 40 was the least of his worries that day.

When writer Wendell Berry spoke on our campus last year, he said that faith is "simply saying that things are not going to get as bad that somebody who is willing to do it can't make it a little better." To me, snow days remind me that I cannot script my life or my day, even in our culture that puts planning on a pedestal. Some days may feel like a parent trap, but I have faith in the people around me, the gift of a Twizzler and the unconscious strength we gain by living through another day -- rain, snow, sleet or shine.