Too much stuff, not enough answers

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

I swore I wasn’t going to let my family become those people overscheduled with after-school activities and yet—here we are: over-committed and stretched too thin and barely keeping our heads above water.

Without meaning to, I scheduled the bulk of the kids’ activities on Tuesdays and Thursdays which makes the other days pretty doable, and we can make it to Wednesday night church. But it’s still too much. I know this because I don’t easily get stressed and I am officially stressed. My brain has too many browser windows open and each one is constantly sending me alerts about something I need to attend to RIGHT NOW. I know the maze of activities awaiting us when they get out of school, so I’m racing around trying to accomplish everything I can before they get home in order to make the afternoon less painful.

The tasks I’m trying to accomplish are the normal things that need to happen for us to function on the most basic level, like food and shelter. But also—shockingly enough—my husband and I have our own activities and pursuits that have nothing to do with our kids at all. Those are the things that are beginning to feel more and more indulgent. How dare we be on committees or work with groups we care about if they don’t directly benefit our precious spawn? Intellectually—I know that is complete garbage, but the busier our family gets, the more it feels that way.

Homework time is a battlefield with me on one side, knowing how important it is to complete it all before their activities so they aren’t starting back up at 8 p.m. and them on the other side thinking, ‘I just got home from school—gimme a break, dude.’ I’m trying to strike that elusive balance between encouraging self-motivation and cracking the whip so they won’t go to college needing their mom to remind them to look over their social studies notes or explain the importance of time management—again.

For me, this looks like telling the fifth grader that if she hasn’t finished her written homework before it’s time to leave for tumbling, then she can’t go, but not standing over her to make sure she does it—just offering reminders. Multiple times. ‘I’m serious kid—you will not go if you aren’t done.’ And, ‘Thirty minutes left and you have to change clothes, too.’ And when she’s still reading instead of starting her written work, ‘You read in bed every night, wouldn’t it make more sense to read your assigned chapter of Wonder tonight and work on your written homework now?’ Or is that too much? Should I give her one warning and then stick to my guns if she isn’t ready in time? But the idea of doing her reading homework in bed and completing her written homework now truly had not occurred to her. Isn’t that how you teach time management? You give them tips and suggestions but leave it up to them to execute—or is that still coddling?

And the second grader, I leave her alone to complete her worksheets, but she needs me to call out spelling words and set a timer if she has a timed test in math (note to self: get an egg timer for homework so she can do it herself, maybe? Can she be trusted not to give herself more time?). If they would just sit down and do their work beginning to end without floating away to lalaland or arguing over who the pink mechanical pencil belongs to (me, it belongs to me because I bought a huge pack of them at their behest and they’ve lost most of them), they could be finished in 30 minutes—maybe a little longer for the fifth grader if she has a test the next day. Instead, it feels like I am dragging them through rapidly drying cement as wild dogs chase us—or maybe that’s just the new puppy.

An additional barrier to a peaceful homework time is that there are two other children bebopping around the house who don’t have homework, but enjoy spinning the puppy around in circles, teeth clamped down on their clothes. This is majorly frowned upon by their father who is trying to train the dog to actually behave and by their mother who doesn’t care for teeth-torn clothes and by their sister who finds it difficult to complete a multiplication timed test in four minutes amid the shrieking and barking. So, I end up playing homework referee, or maybe homework ping-pong ball.

I bounce from one room to the other, shushing the little ones and agreeing to gather blankets for a fort if it means they’ll leave their sisters alone. Then back to the homework room to start the timer and move the bowl of snacks that will distract from timed test completion and offer a time-check reminder to Miss I’ll-be-ready-for-tumbling-mama-go-away. Then returning to the blanket-fort site to find that the construction crew has dumped the contents of two Memory games on the floor. Fine—just play in here. Back to the homework area to find timed test-taker studying a Goldfish cracker like it’s an archaeological find that’s sure to rewrite the history of human civilization as we know it.

‘Timed test,’ I remind her as a Memory game player whine-walks into the homework area telling me that his sister won’t let him play with her and he’s soooo thirsty. Ping. Pong. Ping. Pong. That was just four minutes of the day and doesn’t include trips to the kitchen to attempt cooking supper—which rarely happens these days because: see above.

I can imagine some people reading this thinking, ‘Just send the other two outside—that will solve the problem.’ Oh, how I wish it was that easy. One child is 3 years old, so he doesn’t get to free range the neighborhood yet, maybe folks got away with that in the 80’s but that generation also did such a great job at that whole ‘Stranger Danger’ thing that it is now frowned upon to let toddlers wander the roads unattended. If I send the 5-year-old out to ride her bike around her free range area then, the 3-year-old is alone and even more demanding. Keeping them together is the best strategy. So, I send them to the backyard—where they remain for all of 3 minutes before returning for water/snacks/supplies for a game and even if they handle those things themselves—they make a lot of noise doing so and the back and forth and in and out are worse than the dog-spinning.

Or maybe someone is thinking, ‘Just tell the older two what time they have to be finished to go to their activities then leave them alone—that’ll teach them!’ I’m all for the ‘sink or swim’ approach on a lot of things—but how are they supposed to learn time management if they’re just drowning and not being taught the skills they need to swim? So, I try to set a goal they need to meet and offer suggestions on how to reach it and then back off to let them sink or swim. And then the second guessing begins.

Does my version of ‘sink or swim’ coddle them too much or maybe I didn’t offer enough support? Should I park the other two in front of the T.V. every day since that could buy me 30 minutes of peace to get the others sorted out? They deserve some of my attention as well, and it’s hard enough keeping them from becoming screen-zombies. Should I pull the kids from some of their activities so we aren’t so busy? Which ones? Soccer only lasts through October and pulling them now isn’t fair to their teammates—plus what about the whole ‘you’ve made a commitment to this team and should see it through’ train of thought? Basketball? This is the first year it’s been available to that kid and she’s enjoying it. Do I take that away before she’s even had a chance to see if it’s ‘her thing’? Golf? She’s pretty good, it’s a lifelong sport that she enjoys and is well-suited to her personality.

Piano? It’s 30 minutes a week, conducted at the school immediately following dismissal. The only problem is she has to be picked up at the same time her sister has to be dropped off across town for golf, which means I now pay a high school girl to drive her the five minutes to my house where the babysitter is waiting with her brother who is napping. Also, it’s learning an instrument—not ‘Fun with Glitter’ or some other useless pursuit. Tumbling/dance? These take up the largest bulk of time and require the most carpool schedules. Something’s got to give there, but if I told them they could pick only one activity, they would probably choose one of those.

Do I really want to take the chance that they would give up the great exercise of soccer, the team camaraderie of basketball, the myriad benefits of learning an instrument, and the practice of a lifelong sport like golf to focus only on back handsprings and high kicks? I’ve got nothing against tumbling, it has many benefits as well—but do I want that to be ALL one of them does?

Do I let them make that call and suffer the consequences if they regret not sticking with soccer or learning piano? Or, as the adult, is it my job to make sure they spend some of their extra-curricular energy on something that may turn into a lifelong passion or a high school sport they are able to participate in because they stuck with it? Still figuring that out.

At the same time—I know they don’t have to be doing all of this. Despite what messages the world sends my way, I know my kids don’t need to do ALL THESE THINGS to thrive in the world. But what do they need? What can I give them that will be enriching without being too much? What’s the magic number of activities they can do because we are lucky enough to have the time and the resources to do them that will add something to their lives but not take away the freedom and joy of being a kid? Does that number exist? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the number we’re at right now.

I was starting to assume that I just have too many kids when my annual Ob-Gyn appointment came around this week. My doctor has two kids and she made them pick one activity each and STILL has the same problems. Turns out, when they go to just one thing—it’s like specializing and they end up adding more practices and rehearsals until their schedule looks as bad as ours. Even without fort-building siblings—homework time at her house is a misery as well.

Neither of us had any magic solutions, but sitting there in my paper gown that doesn’t stay snapped and my feet dangling in the air from my perch on the exam table—it was nice to hear I’m not alone and my kids are the normal kind of exhausting. Solidarity and grace, showing up in the strangest of places.

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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