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For parents, spring brings so much more this year — renewal, beauty and, yes, anxiety

Burgeoning magnolia blossoms begin to form a colorful canopy on March 20 in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The weather is warming, slowly but surely — a sign of time passing, though I rarely know what day it is anymore. The crocuses are coming up from the neglected, half-brown lawns, and even the daffodils in my own pitiful mulch bed have bloomed.

The neighbor’s magnolia trees are just starting to open — those furry buds splitting to reveal the white and pink flowers folded inside them. Every year they bloom too early and a cold snap kills them, or a spring windstorm blows all the blooms down into the yard, making a huge petaled mess.

This week it was the latter: high winds (and the neighbor’s wind chimes) waking me in the wee hours. Sure enough, in the morning while sending the kids off to school and walking the dog, I found dozens of magnolias on the sidewalk and in the grass, many shut tight and still half in their furry gray pods.

On one hand, I roll my eyes at those trees. Every year! They never learn. On the other hand, maybe I can take a note from them. Even if frost weren’t an issue, there is always a chance of thunderstorms, a chance of high winds. There is no completely safe, completely peaceful season.

So here we are.

Spring is arriving literally and metaphorically. Coronavirus vaccines are becoming more widely available. Some children, like my own, are returning to school. With warmer weather comes a chance for us to see our friends and family again, even if outdoors and distanced. Have my kids been looking forward to being back in school with their friends and teachers? Playing outside with friends after school and on the weekends, even masked, even distanced? Yes, they have. Have I missed my backyard socially distanced, BYOB happy hours? Yes, I have.

More schools are reopening. Here’s how to prepare kids for The Return.

“Spring fever” feels different this year, a year since the world changed — shrank — for us all. I think the sense of renewal and hope we’re experiencing this year is magnified by how shut-in and anxious we’ve all been through the winter. I’m feeling an odd mix of near-giddiness and trepidation about the months to come, much like those magnolias, which could bloom at any moment, be blown down or freeze.

Winter was especially challenging for me and my two kids. In December my ex-husband moved out of state. Timed perfectly with that shift — because when it rains, it pours — our school district instituted a new hybrid plan beginning after the winter break.

For the past few months, my son attended elementary school each day for three hours in the afternoon, after lunch. Was my sixth-grader on the same schedule as my second-grader? Of course not. My daughter attended middle school all day, during regular school hours, but only two or three days a week.

If this sounds like a nightmare for working parents — and in particular for single working parents — it was. I had about five guaranteed hours to myself most weeks, when both children were at school in person. There were some lunches to pack, and other lunches to cook. There were drives to two different schools a few times a day. My work requires uninterrupted time and space, and a couple of hours here and there was simply not cutting it. The past year has been a year of parents — and children — being asked to do what feels impossible, and having to do it anyway.

I sort of wish I had a screenshot of my therapist’s face on Zoom when she asked about self-care, and I told her I was trying to find a half-hour in my schedule to cry. I know I am not the only working single parent who hasn’t had time to feel.

On Twitter, some fellow writer-moms and I were commiserating about how many of us have cried in the bathroom. It’s one of the only places where we can be alone — and frankly, sometimes we can’t even get privacy there. There could be a very thick coffee table book from the pandemic experience called “Mothers Crying in Bathrooms.

Dispatch from a mom in quarantine, from the bathroom floor

But maybe, just maybe, that’s all about to change.

Here in central Ohio, for example, our school district just shifted to “all-in” learning, so all of the students attend every day. I don’t want my children being unmasked inside the school building with so many people, so I’m bringing them home for lunch when they are unable to eat outside — on two different lunch hours, naturally. Even so, all-in will mean about five hours a day for me instead of five hours a week. I won’t waste a minute of it.

On my kids’ first day of all-in school, I dropped them off, walked the dog and then drove across town to a hospital complex for my first of two coronavirus vaccinations. Thank you, Pfizer.

Later, after dinner, we celebrated their first full day with our first “malt walk” of 2021. It’s a family tradition: we walk to Graeter’s for ice cream, then walk around our neighborhood talking, eating and laughing. It was a taste of normalcy. Delicious normalcy.

We’re also looking forward to getting back to other regular springtime activities. I just renewed our Franklin Park Conservatory membership, and I’m excited to take the kids to see the butterflies again this year — masked, by appointment. We skipped the exhibit last year because of lockdown, but it’s an annual tradition. I have pictures of both kids there in strollers. One year a beautiful blue morpho butterfly landed on my sweater, and I carried it with me through the exhibit for several long minutes.

Soon, too, we’ll resume weekly Sunday dinners at my parents’ house, the house I was raised in, with my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, niece and nephews. One day, we’ll be able to gather around the kitchen table again, but for now the warm weather means we can sit out back, socially distanced, and eat on the deck and on picnic blankets in the yard.

All winter we tried to keep this tradition alive, shivering in their backyard for quick visits, sometimes bringing my mom’s homemade meatballs and sauce home in Tupperware to heat up for dinner. Our family is close, and we will always make do. But spring arriving, and the promise of summer on its heels, makes spending time together so much easier.

We can’t stay tucked away forever, folded tightly like those magnolia buds before they open. This new season brings with it excitement, growth, plenty of beauty, and yes, some anxiety, too — and that mix is not unique to spring. That’s the stuff of life.

Maggie Smith is the author of five books, including the national bestseller “Keep Moving,” “Good Bones” and “Goldenrod,” a new collection of poems out in July 2021.

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