The first day of school is fast approaching and I for one could not be more excited. With it comes the return of my other child, the child I reluctantly said goodbye to last June and whom I have missed dearly in the intervening weeks and months (has it actually been years?) since school ended. That child, whom my husband and I call School James, is the apple of my eye and the light of our lives – he is exactly the kid who, back in my delusional 20-something fantasies of motherhood, I imagined I'd have.
Quiet but confident, outgoing but attentive to others, helpful, diligent, creative, enthusiastic, consistently cheerful and an excellent listener, School James, according to his nursery school report card, "always follows the rules" and "is a delight to have around." He trots about in cute little outfits, smiling at everyone, puts on his own shoes and coat, eats his lunch with relish, says "please" and "thank you" unprompted, goes to the bathroom and washes his hands unassisted. Most notably, he never, ever whines, picks his nose, makes a mess and refuses to clean it up or demands a spoonful of Nutella at 3 a.m. Obviously, I adore him.
The problem is, apart from a few fleeting encounters at the school gates, I've never actually met the kid. That's because he is the alter-ego of my other son, Home James, whom I also love dearly but who is (how can I put this delicately?) a child who enjoys testing boundaries wherever possible. By which I mean he can be – and regularly is – an absolute bloody nightmare.
For example, Home James and I had this conversation at 10:45 p.m. recently after what must have been my 25th attempt to put him to bed.
James: Mummy, when everyone is sleeping, do you know what I do?
Me: Tell me.
James: I fly out my window and swim under the sewers to Kidworld where I have my kid job. And do you know what my kid job is?
Me: No idea.
James: I'm the boss of the entire city. I make all the rules and everyone else has to follow them. Everyone. Even you and Daddy and all my friends and teachers at school.
Me: That must be exciting.
James: It is. Now get me a spoonful of Nutella and glass of fizzy water in the green cup.
Me: But, darling, we talked about this, Nutella is not for bedtime –
James: Mummy, just do it. Otherwise I'll start to cry again. And you don't want me to cry. You know why?
James: I can tell from your forehead wrinkles you're very tired.
This is life with Home James: Unpredictable, emotionally arduous and funny when it isn't maddening.
The best thing about the Internet, in my opinion, is the way it can put the universality of your own little problems into perspective. Type "My child is an angel at school and a devil at home" into Google and you will get endless anguished parenting blog posts and chat rooms of anxious mothers gathering to share their horror stories under handles such as "MamabearPhilly1977."
But instead of hanging around in those anonymous echo chambers of anxiety, I contacted my go-to parenting expert Andrea Nair, founder of Connect Four Parenting – a woman I respect because she is sensible, human and not overly chirpy.
A former teacher and psychotherapist, she is starting her own independent school in London, Ont., based on her positive-parenting techniques.
Turns out James's Jekyll and Hyde routine isn't so special at all – it even has a name. "It's called After School Restraint Collapse – it's a thing!" Nair responded immediately, directing me to a recent blog post (yummymummyclub.ca) she'd just written on this very phenomenon. She encouraged me to view James's split personality sympathetically and humanely. "You might see this in your partner or even yourself," she pointed out. "You conduct, orchestrate, produce, think, smile, keep things in your inside brain that you wish you could say out loud, then walk in your front door only to turn into a snarly, crabby person."
Hmm, I thought, responding graciously to an e-mail from an editor before turning to snap at the kids to turn down the TV, I have no idea what she's talking about.
As adults, we develop coping strategies for soothing the effects of After School Restraint Collapse. We have friends or wine or yoga or parties for helping us to let loose and test the limits of our "other selves" – the honest, free, unvarnished people we'd like to be all day long but can't be, for fear of getting fired, unfriended or arrested. But for James, he only has Home James – the emotional, irascible, sometimes downright hideous persona he slips into like a pair of comfortable jogging pants after a long day of being School James, his alternate, upstanding and exhaustingly well-behaved better self.
Nair, of course, also offers a bunch of tips for mitigating your child's after-school personality switch. These include offering healthy snacks, limiting their extracurricular activities and even reducing household clutter and noise.
But mostly, as with all aspects of parenting, it really just comes down to two principles: kindness and consistency. If you can succeed in being kind and consistent with your kids most of the time, I really do believe you can't screw up that badly. Even if you're dealing with two kids in one little body.
And when in doubt, try a spoonful of Nutella. Like most parenting advice, it's cheap and full of crap, but occasionally, it does the trick.