Cross country on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 7:00 a.m. on campus before school. Swim team practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school from 3:30 to 4:30 pm, followed by soccer practice from 5:30 to 6:30 on those days. Then there is tennis team practice on Fridays at 4:00 pm, and I play with daughter Julia on Wednesday afternoons. (Elizabeth has a similar schedule with her own teams, minus the tennis and with only one soccer practice per week, not two.)
Saturdays are mostly filled with two soccer games to attend. As Maria and I claim through pained smiles, “AYSO equals ‘All Your Saturdays Obligated.’” Then Sunday afternoon Julia’s junior team tennis has their matches. Drive to the tennis courts, arrive half hour early for warm ups, the singles and then doubles matches, and then wind it down and drive home.
And then there is the “Beauty and the Beast” play Julia participates in on Friday afternoons when school gets out early at 12:26 pm for teacher conferences. She has the role of “Gaston,” the bombastic anti-hero who wishes to wed Belle. She loves it.
So goes fall of 2016 for the Geib family. Daughter Julia is in 4th grade and Elizabeth is in 1st grade.
The family calendar is crowded, and our schedule requires intense parent chauffeuring. To one extent or another, most families we know are thus. The psychic energy required to keep our schedule in line and have everything ready is considerable. I carefully get all sports equipment and clothes ready for the next day and put exercise bags in our cars the night before. Maria and I use a joint Google calendar app on our phones and it is scrutinized or modified almost on the hour.
And I am fully ready to cancel practices, or even drop out of teams, if children get sick or feel overwhelmed. Maria sometimes opines that “it is too much.” She claims we are over-scheduled.
But I disagree, although I do keep that worry in mind and watch my daughters carefully. Are they overwhelmed? Most often, I would say, “No.” We were given our bodies and minds so that we can use them, and human beings can almost always do more than they think. While we are alive, let us use our time. Amen! When I see Julia and Elizabeth jog off the soccer field, red-faced and sweaty, or emerge from the pool exhausted after swimming lap after lap, I quietly vibrate with contentment.
I love to see my daughters exercise — almost as much as I love to exercise myself. It is in exercise that we burn off the minor frustrations of quotidian life, exercise where we quiet the creeping dissatisfactions that lead to moodiness and venting of spleen. It is in exercise that we learn to listen to and make our body our friend, not our enemy. Modern science even deigns now to show how exercise improves thinking and brain function. Amen!
I write this posting on September 29th of 2016: we are well into the fall season. This is by far the busiest time of the year. I am eager as a parent in August to start the new school year and sports season after a relatively activity-free summer, but then I am exhausted by Thanksgiving. Other seasons have more “down time” and I want some activity in every season — but fall is frenetic.
Yet even in busy fall there are the lazy Sunday mornings and the weekends after sports where the girls can play, or they can idle in their room before bed drawing or playing with legos. My daughters make up games in our house and play them for hours. I smile to myself at the ingenuity and creativity of the games they make up. Unstructured time is important, too.
Or time spent reading the Harry Potter series or just cuddling and talking. It seems bedtime is the best for quiet and intimate talks between parent and child. Maria occasionally bakes with the kids on weekends and or does an art project with them.
How to find that balance, the sweet spot in between too much and not enough? I try to swerve my daughters away from the Scylla of being overcommitted and too busy and the Charybdis of not having enough to do and underdeveloping talents and potential. Finding the balance between the two is not easy. (The attempt to clarify this dynamic is the reason for this essay.)
My daughters are about as busy as I was when I was their age. The difference is that I played sports outside at the playground without any parental supervision, most of the time. In fourth grade, in the year 1977, at the same age as Julia, I remember going to the local Anderson Elementary School with a basketball and practicing layups and shooting shots hour after hour. Sometimes my friend Mike Janicin joined me, sometimes I played alone (or with others). Hour after hour. And I came home to dinner sweaty and exhausted. And happy. I ate ravenously. I slept well later.
I was happy. I was healthy.
But nobody near where I live seems to play outside after school like this now; the streets are mostly deserted when I drive them in the afternoons. Children seem to be inside watching TV or playing video games or whatever. Their parents always loom somewhere in the background – always near, if not at hand. Or children are in after school care because both parents work. Or they are at volleyball or baseball practice, or have piano or Irish dancing lessons. The bottom line: children are rarely ever outside of their parent’s or some other adult’s sight. Nowadays kids seem supervised nearly all the time! It is as if the parents are worried their children will be kidnapped or start taking drugs the moment they are out of sight of adults. “I just want to make sure they are OK,” parents tell me.
So it seems if you want your children to be active, the parents must schedule everything. When children previously went to play with friends on their own, now parents schedule “play dates.” With Julia I am pretty much her playmate when I pick her up from the bus stop after school lets out and the organized afternoon sports commence an hour or so later. (My mother would never have thought of doing this and she was a “stay at home mother” who had the time. My father, a lawyer who worked until dinnertime, would have thought the idea of palling around with me after school to be risible.) But I pick Julia up at 2:45 pm, we get a snack, Julia does her homework, and we are on the tennis court together hitting balls by 3:30 pm. I make sure my daughters are active.
Why do I do this? Well, I am not going to take Julia home in the early afternoon where we spend hours inside the house with her badgering me to “do something fun!” We will be active. We will go outside. We will sweat. We will earn our appetites for dinner. We will enjoy the resulting good night’s sleep.
I want my children to grow up happy and healthy like I did.
That is why I live in the suburbs. This is why I bought the expensive two-story, two 1/2 car garage, four bedroom house with the yard that I did. Soccer and sun and long afternoons of sweat and books and green playing fields and pools to swim in: the middle-class California Dream. Child-centered lifestyles, “concerted cultivation” of offspring, two parents in the home, healthy meals, extracurricular activities, good grades, and entrance to a UC school and adult life.
There are many pains to being a schoolteacher, but one pleasure in the job is it is “family friendly.” I start and end my compacted workday, more or less, at the time my kids get out of school. Hence, while many other kids are in after school care programs, I can actively be with my daughters. I hear Julia tell me about her school day right when it ends, and that is the only time she wants to or will talk about it. I watch her do her homework and can help her if she needs it. We are on the tennis court at 3:30 together.
It can be exhausting. A part of me sees why some adults almost prefer to work at their jobs more than spend hour after endless hour with their children, and so they hire nannies or whoever to supervise their children. Most parents want to do adult stuff, not kid stuff. For myself, after about four hours of direct parenting I am done! My temper grows sharp, my patience runs thin, and I am not my best self. Maria steps in and takes over.
I am exhausted by parenting. Maria is exhausted by parenting. Often we are like sentinels relieving each other from guard duty.
But we can keep this intense pace up for another decade, at which time our daughters will be well launched and in college. We will never get a second chance at raising our daughters in their most impressionable years.
This is perhaps the value in being a bit of an older parent: you see the bigger picture better, you are more able to put yourself in the background, and then to put in the “hard yards” that committed parenting means. Ten years… that is not so much time. My daughters will be grown plenty soon.
And parenting is still less stressful and less exhausting than when our daughters were newborns, and then toddlers. Completely helpless and needing our help nearly all the time. My blood pressure goes up just thinking back on that era from 2007 until around 2014: a stressful, if enriching, time. The entire Barack Obama presidency was an era for me of babies, diapers, cuddling, playing, teething, tantrums, patience and more patience, exorbitant childcare costs, preschool, and then elementary school. The days (and nights) were long and exhausting, but the months (and years) they flew by.
Sometime around 2027 our daughters will be mostly grown up. They will require much less of our time and attention. Then Maria and I can decide what to do with the rest of our lives. (If I am even alive then.)
But for now, it is much more about my daughters than about me. “Keep your eye on the ball, Richard!”
The gift of a happy and healthy childhood.
It was an inestimable gift I received. I will do my best to pay it forward to my daughters.
So help me God.