It’s Time for American Parents to Redefine “Fun”
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It’s Time for American Parents to Redefine “Fun”

In order for American parents to have “fun” during their non-working hours, they need to redefine the word as we’re seeing large hunks of our time commandeered by our children’s extracurricular activities.

Naming travel hockey tournaments, “Family Art Night” at school and team parties as activities in which her family partakes, KJ Dell’Antonia wrote, “This is what we signed up for, with our big, boisterous family.”

She pointed to a recent essay by a mother who started raising her children in Europe but, upon moving to the United States, was gob-smacked to discover that the contemporary American parenting culture is completely child-centered. (The writer, Jennifer Conlin, was commenting on the “French parents are better” conversation we’ve been having lately in the wake of the pro-Parisian parenting book Bringing up Bebe.

“Now our entire adult life revolves around the children’s activities,” Conlin wrote in the New York Times. As she detailed a crazy-busy set of weekends when her children were participating in musicals, softball, ensemble competitions, a forensics tournament (?!), baseball and a Science Olympiad, Conlin said, “It’s easier to preach benign parenting from one’s pretty perch in Paris than it is to import those traits to the trenches of America.”

However Dell’Antonia said this all-in brand of contemporary parenting is “as fun as we make it” and again reminds us — chastises us actually — that “this . . . is what we have signed up for.” I, respectfully, disagree. I didn’t sign up for having my weekends sucked up in the vortex of children’s activities. I didn’t dictate (a la the Tiger Mom) what activities my children should or shouldn’t do other than to limit them to one sport per season. I’ve allowed them to choose their activities and then tried to shoehorn those activities into a family life with two working parents, two 13-year-olds, a 10-year-old and a dog. But the shoehorning can be messy business.

My life is currently one big logistical nightmare as all three of my children play sports (soccer, hockey, basketball, lacrosse), two are in bands (one plays in three bands), one is on the Student Council, one belongs to a monthly book club, two take additional once-weekly math classes and one is going to start reffing soccer this spring. And that doesn’t include the events they have at school like Colonial Days, talent shows, Art Nights, etc.

My biggest fear, aside from forgetting to bring a kid to some practice or event (my husband and I missed a tryout session for our son’s 2012/13 hockey team . . . whoops!), is that I’ll accidentally strand someone somewhere. Leave no kid behind, that’s my number one priority.

However there are many occasions when, if I can’t get a kid to an activity because, shockingly enough, my husband and I actually have something of our own that conflicts with their stuff or we want to do something other than a kid-centric activity. (For example, we had scheduled a St. Patrick’s Day dinner at another family’s home when a hockey game was rescheduled, with little notice, for that night. We went to the dinner.) The children just have to be okay with missing that activity from time to time. Our family, we tell them, is comprised of five people and sometimes, Mom and Dad, or the family unit as a whole, comes first. We can’t do everything, we tell them, and if they miss 25 percent of some activity, well, that’s the price of being part of a team, the family team. Contrary to Dell’Antonia’s assertion, I’m not at all content to surrender all my free time to trying to pretend that a picnic on the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game is as good as enjoying a sparkling conversation with my husband about politics and current events at a nice restaurant that doesn’t have paper placemats. We need date nights every once and a while.

It has taken quite some time for me to be okay with our approach, to not be wracked with guilt if we miss something, to not feel badly that I’m not enjoying all the child-centered events as much as other parents claim they do. I’ve had to try not to beat myself up if I mistakenly forget something. I can only do what I can do, as long as I don’t leave a kid behind. (Have I mentioned that I’m paranoid that I’ll do that?)

That being said, I still get resentful when a coach or the head of a particular activity acts as though his or her gig is the only one on a child’s plate and exacts a punishment on the child should he or she be late or miss an activity because sometimes a parent simply can’t get the kid there. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to divide myself into thirds and deliver everyone everywhere simultaneously. I likewise don’t cotton to attempts to lay guilt upon parents for missing events when there are a freakin’ bazillion of them; they’re not all litmus tests on our fitness and attentiveness as mothers and fathers.

I realize, as parents of older children have told me repeatedly, that this insanely, jam-packed period of my life has an expiration date. Sooner than I’d like to think, all three kids will be off to college and the house will suddenly be eerily quiet. I won’t be worrying about leaving anyone behind on a soccer field because they will have left the home to start a new chapter of their lives. I’m trying to keep all of this in mind when I caffeinate-up in order to chauffeur kids around, particularly in the early morning hours. But that doesn’t mean that when my husband and I want to go out to dinner or do something other than attend a kid’s game, I’m going to always choose the kid thing. I can’t put my life on a shelf until the kids are in college. There’s got to be some kind of balance, and a whole lotta coffee.

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