“We are not there yet,” I might have said, when what I probably meant was, “I hope we never get there.”
For my first four years of motherhood, I commuted and worked full time. A solid 10-12 hours of my every day was spent working, preparing for work or recovering from it, while my husband worked longer hours, finished school, worked six days a week and, eventually, traveled half the time. Life was chaotic, and I felt like I never saw my kids. When I came home I vowed it would be different, and mostly it has been. We are intentional about what we do and don’t do. I say no sometimes, even when I’d rather say yes, but I rarely say yes when I mean no. It’s been a major change.
Friends and family insist I will not always get to control our load the way I have so far. “Once your kids get older and into activities, you’ll understand,” they might say. I’m a recovering know-it-all who really doesn’t like being told what to do, so I’ve always prickled at that kind of thing. What if the way you’re doing it isn’t the only way? What if my priorities for our family can survive their getting older?
Our daughters are 7 and 5, our son is 1, and this is the first year we have committed to long-standing activities. We have done it without reservation. We explained each child got to choose one activity per season. So far, this hasn't been difficult to enforce, though I recognize we may be forced to reconsider as they get older. Mirabella thoughtfully decided on dance; Emerie has found that “kwae tron do” is exactly as much fun as she thought it would be. Both represent a lengthy commitment, and one is quite expensive. Now, two days a week they rush home from the bus stop, snack in the car and I shuttle from a dojang to a studio, then back again to try to catch the board breaking, home to stir dinner, and back to the studio. I know some friends would probably laugh that that sounds like a light day, but here’s the thing: I am not interested in winning the contest of who is busier. I don’t want to play that game at all, and if I have to, I’d just as soon lose.
What are we missing when we assume and is always better than or? What are our kids missing when we forget to teach them about opportunity cost, about choices and boredom and down time and rest? What are we saying when we forget to model setting and honoring priorities in our lives? When we decide not to fight for margin? When we neglect to show them their activities do not trump family time?
To my friends whose kids are in a bunch of activities, I do not mean this as an assault on your choices. They are just that, your choices. I assume, of course, that you have thoughtfully considered them and that they work well for your family. I am not suggesting your way is wrong. But I find myself often defending our margin against good activities that would take it away. It’s not that I am selfish or naïve, and that soon I will understand the way it just is. There is no right way to do any of this. These are choices— none of us need to tacitly accept these demands on our time—and sometimes I think we forget that. Sometimes I think we forget we don’t always have to say yes. It’s okay for our kids to miss out, okay for them to be disappointed; it's okay for others to be disappointed. It’s our job to take the longer view to weigh the potential benefit of taking on another commitment versus the potential larger risk.
I don't pretend to know what the right choices are for your family. We will continue to say no to that Saturday cheer clinic, to basketball, to t-ball and maybe to soccer, to continuous swim lesson sessions and birthday parties of people we don’t really know so that we can joyfully say yes to dance and martial arts and science club and quality time with the people we love in this season. And I reserve the right to change all of that when it doesn’t work anymore.
We all want to give our children the best of everything, to give them choices, for them to be well-rounded. Some of us work to give our children every opportunity we didn’t have growing up; some of us to expose our kids to everything we loved from our own childhoods. I participated in ten types of activities when I was a kid, which doesn’t take into account youth group or other church commitments, babysitting, or the jobs I had starting at 14. I had lots of options. And it’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, but in retrospect, I wish I’d had more time at home with my family. More time to myself. I wish I’d known it was okay to say no to good things if it meant saying yes to what was best for me.
These kids are only under our roof for a short time. I don't want to sacrifice time around the table or the pool, secrets whispered between sisters in blanket forts or lazy nights together on the altar of all the things. I feel the weight of responsibility to structure our time as a family wisely, to make good choices, and to teach my children the value of or over and.
How do you weigh choices and demands on your family's time? How do you know when you're getting it right?