It starts innocently enough. The kids in the neighborhood are starting a soccer team, and they need just one more to make a go of it. Can your four-year-old play? And you say yes without thinking that you’re signing away the next three months of Saturday mornings, not to mention all of those weekday afternoons where you’ll find yourself hunting for shin guards and yelling, “Where did you leave your cleats?,” before hauling your reluctant preschooler to another practice.
Maybe you’re a pianist, like my husband. Maybe your mom spent thirty minutes or an hour sitting on the piano bench with you every afternoon of your childhood and you now sight read music like you were born doing it. You just want the same thing for your kids– it’s not too much to ask, is it?
Then, a dozen years later, you find yourself writing blog posts while sitting at a playground in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, where you and your preschoolers are killing an hour in between your third and fourth (of five) trips to the dance studio that day. This gives them a break from fistfighting in the back seat of the car for a little while.
You want your kids to be involved in extracurriculars. You worked in the admissions office of a highly selective university for a few years, and you know how important it is to get involved in something and demonstrate a relatively serious commitment to it. As a young mom, you were desperate for something, anything, to break up those days at home with little ones when the hours until Dad came home stretched out longer and longer as the afternoon progressed. “When he’s old enough to take swimming lessons, at least there will be something to do besides stare at each other,” you said on the 400th hour of four o’clock.
Now he’s in high school, and last year you decided to put those swimming lessons to good use. Soccer was a disaster, and team sports don’t seem to be his thing, so you steered him toward swim team. But not just any swim team; he goes to the school where the team wins at the state meet every year, where the coach has won more than any coach in Utah history, and where practices are intense. This summer, he swims 20 hours a week– the equivalent a part time job. He loves it, has miraculously managed not to be intimidated by the kids who have been on swim team since kindergarten, and he’s thriving, so that’s good, right?
But the driving is killing you. He turns sixteen next spring and you’ll do anything to ensure that he gets his license on his birthday, up to and including buying him an obnoxious beater of a car in yellow or bright blue. It will be worth it if you don’t have to drive him to and from practice four times each day.
You start your next swimmer at age eight so he won’t be behind the curve when he gets to high school. He doesn’t swim at the same time as his brother, but what’s two more trips to the high school?
Swim team. Scouts. Clarinet. Piano. These activities would be manageable with one kid. Maybe two, or even three. But you have six. And you feel like you can’t deny the younger ones the opportunities their older siblings had just because you’re old and tired now.
When you moved to your town a few years ago, you put your oldest daughter in a low-key neighborhood dance studio, which (you don’t know this at the time) is trying to transform itself into the Abby Lee Dance Company. Pretty soon you find your weekends filled with dance competitions, and you’re driving to the studio ten times a day (literally), and paying for private lessons so your kid can keep up. She loves it and has a real talent for it, and when the studio politics get too crazy, you agree to let her move to a new studio that’s only a little more expensive, only a little more serious, only ten minutes further down the road, and you’re sunk even deeper.
Your fourth child, a daughter, begs for violin lessons. You know you’re not cut out for the parent-intensive Tiger Mom Suzuki model, but you can’t find a teacher within a reasonable radius who teaches any other method. So you endure the teacher’s glares and snippy comments when you’re less than attentive during the lesson (texting the kids you left at home to fend for themselves) and smile and nod when the teacher tells you what you need to do to help your daughter to practice at home (your contribution to practice is to helpfully set the timer for her before zipping off upstairs to fold a load of laundry or running to the pool yet again).
The Tiger Mom model simply doesn’t work when you have half a dozen kids. Even if you have the money to pay for the private dance lessons and swim team warmups. Even if you don’t work full time outside of the home. Even if you try really hard.
You managed to write two novels, back in the day. You used to blog every day. You used to write essays and to spend time working with the journal you edit. Now you feel guilty every time you open your laptop and see the journal homepage load because you don’t have anything left to give when you get home at the end of the day.
You remember how much you hated the moms of teenagers who would see you struggling with your cart full of babies and toddlers in the grocery store, shake their heads, and say, “You think it’s bad now, but the teen years are worse.” You wanted to punch them, and vowed that you would never say that to a young mom who sees every day as a marathon. You assumed that they were talking about how the kids were emotionally difficult, but now you realize that they’re actually talking about the driving, the juggling, the way you are trying so hard to hold on to the daily schedule in your mind that you can barely remember your kids’ names. It’s a different kind of endurance you need these days.
So what do you do? Cancel everything except church activities? Tell each kid they can do one thing so you have time to write another novel? Tell them they can do anything they want to do as long as you don’t have to drive them or pay for it? That’s what your parents did.
You want your children to have experiences where they feel successful, where they shine. It feels especially important in a big family where it can be hard to distinguish yourself from your siblings. You just don’t know how to do it for all of them and still retain your sanity, your memory, and a semblance of yourself.
How do you keep the extracurriculars from spiraling out of control? Have you cut back? Have you leaned in? Does it get better once the kids start to drive? Please tell me it does.