You’re never prepared for it – for that moment on your weekly (tri-weekly) trip to Target when the water toys and outdoor furniture sets are corralled into the clearance section and replaced by mountains of marbleized composition notebooks and rows of calculators that cost more than my smart phone.

Like Christmas, birthdays, and well . . . like most milestones, the back-to-school season seems to arrive before you know it each summer. But this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have had a back-to-school calendar countdown since Day #1 of summer.

And with it. . .

My emotions? Mixed.

My schedule? Threatened.

My budget? On the Endangered Species List.

Ready or not, it always comes.

But before we all dash out to make impulsive beach-home purchases (insert a winning lottery ticket into this fantasy), let’s be careful to remember that the end of one thing is the beginning of another. Of something new. And fresh. And filled with aromas of pumpkin spice and melting marshmallows.

The fall is my favorite time of year. But if I’m not careful, my anxiety over the “to-dos” sends me into a stress-induced frenzy that ushers my family into autumn with the grace and self-possession of a wild boar in a pool-sized slop trough.

So, here are three things I do to create a (more) manageable rhythm as we shift gears to a busier time of year:

1. Plan to plan.

My ex-husband and I work jobs that require us to keep inconsistent schedules. Add to that three daughters in a 50/50 custody schedule, the neediest cat on the planet, a move, and our weekly calendars resemble the aisles of Walmart after Black Friday.

A few years back, my girls’ dad suggested a 15-minute family “huddle” on Sunday night to dissect the upcoming seven days. For now, it’s just me, him, and a desk calendar. We coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs, make general decisions about dinners (i.e., cooking at home or Chick-Fil-A), and discuss any potential conflicts or surprises. This meeting has become a sanity-staple that I hope to include our girls in when they’re old enough.

2. Schedule fun.

Do you know why dessert is so exciting? I mean, besides the facts that it’s usually something delicious and chocolate and warm? Dessert is exciting because it’s planned fun. It’s a treat to look forward to—the literal icing on the cake. One practice I’ve found helpful is to have something on our family’s calendar that we can all collectively get excited about.

Whether it’s a long weekend to a relative’s house, a slumber party with friends, or a family trip to a gaming center/arcade, we’re always counting down to something in my house. During those weeks when the day-to-day feels like a total grind, the planned fun is something you can use to buoy your spouse, your kids, and—let’s be honest here— yourself!

3. Let yourself off the hook.

Our family has a strict one sport/club per season policy. My daughter rides the school bus (which will practice social-distancing). She also eats lunchroom food. We don’t attend every birthday party we’re (our kids are) invited to. My girls wear their hair in neat, easy ponytails almost every day.

Over the years, our family has redefined our list of priorities and we conduct our lives accordingly. We understand that means we may do things a little differently than the family across the street…and we’re okay with that. Mostly. It’s hard to feel like other parents are out-parenting us, which is an easy illusion to buy into. Are you familiar with this equation?

Social Media + My Insecurities = Parent Guilt, Spouse Guilt, Spiritual Guilt, Fitness Guilt, Friend Guilt, Guilt Guilt

I’ve had to learn the hard way it’s not healthy to be influenced or pressured to “do life” the way it *appears* others do. In the words of someone super famous that I’m not trendy enough to know, You do you, parents.

You can be a great parent and still let yourself (and your family) off the hook! Prioritize, simplify, and don’t apologize for guarding the gates of your family’s calendar.