Modern Family: January/February

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I’m sure Kelly Elliott is a lovely person and a wonderful mother, but I really don’t envy her schedule.

Elliott, whose three young daughters are competitive swimmers, was featured in an October 2014 article in Real Simple about how best to nurture children’s talents. The magazine ran a sidebar showing a typical weekday for the Elliott family, which begins with a 4:15 a.m. wake-up and includes a dizzying litany of pickups and drop-offs and practices and laundry. (All those pool towels don’t just wash themselves, you know.)

And while Elliott’s devotion to her kids’ extracurriculars is probably a little more intense than average—the tagline of her blog, flylikeagirl.org, is “Crazy Swim Mom”—it seems like there’s a little more of the Crazy Swim Mom in all of us these days.

Last fall, my husband wrote a Facebook status that made many people laugh with knowing recognition.

Hey, if you guys aren’t doing anything tomorrow at 8 a.m., my son Ethan has a soccer game in Fallston, which is somewhere north of White Marsh and south of Delaware. Game time temps should be about 23 degrees. Let me know if you need directions.

Just a few weeks earlier, my brother, who lives outside of D.C., had posted a photo of a calendar reminder for my 11-year-old niece’s hockey game.

Which started on a Sunday at 6 a.m.

In Raleigh, North Carolina.

To be clear, I played the cello quite seriously as a kid; my husband played multiple sports. There is no question we want our kids to play sports and participate in other activities, even when that occasionally means standing in 23-degree weather 30 miles away. Last spring, I somehow volunteered to chaperone my son’s chess team trip to a tournament in Atlanta. By bus. (Let’s just say that upon returning, I drank the most well-deserved glass of wine in history.)

But it seems like the bar is slowly rising, with the occasional “Crazy Swim Mom” moment subtly morphing into the new normal. And whereas the Crazy Swim Mom might have been the outlier back in 1975, someone you might come across every now and then, they are now stock characters, front and center on the stage of modern parenting.

But what really concerns me is so many parents’ apparent willingness to be swept up in this tide, to surrender and even celebrate the inevitable insanity of it rather than to try to stem it or scale it back. I was startled to see that our son’s baseball league sold T-shirts that read “I Have No Life. My Son Plays Baseball.” A quick Google search shows that they make the shirt for parents whose kids play hockey, football and basketball, too, as well as those whose children dance, cheer, do gymnastics and just about any other activity you can think of.

Let’s reflect for a moment, shall we, on the peculiarities of a parenting culture in which having “no life” because of your children is not only…a thing, but a thing that parents would actually pony up $29.95 to jokingly announce to the world.

Houston, we have a problem.

I’m not sure if anyone can pinpoint the exact moment when the kid tail started wagging the parent dog, exactly, but it’s obvious that there has been a massive cultural shift since my own Generation X childhood. As Jennifer Senior so astutely points out in her 2014 book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” women who stayed at home used to be called “housewives.” Now? They’re called “stay-at-home mothers.”

“Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution,” Heather Havrilesky recently wrote in The New York Times. “Motherhood has been elevated—or perhaps demoted—to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.”

It’s that eclipsing of everything else that made Real Simple feel the need to point out how crucial it is for parents to pursue their own hobbies and interests. “One of the most important things we can do is model an adulthood worth striving for,” psychologist Madeline Levine told the magazine. “Having nothing to do but watch kids throw a ball around all weekend may not be the best example to show our kids.”

And yet, here we are, spending weekend after weekend doing nothing but watching kids throw a ball around. Because that’s what everyone does. It’s not easy to extricate yourself from an identity that demands that you be all in, all the time. It’s hard to stand your ground and be the one parent who draws the line in the sand. The one who brings store-bought cupcakes (the horror!) to the school event rather than the Pinterest-worthy ones, or who opts not to have their kid try out for the travel team or get private sports coaching.

But what about the endgame? Where is the evidence that all this schlepping and hovering and catering to is actually benefiting our kids more than “watching ‘Gilligan’s Island’ every afternoon,” as Heather Havrilesky did? Is the intensity with which today’s kids participate in sports and activities actually making an appreciable, positive difference in their lives? Or is it just stressing all of us out?

I think the jury’s still out.

So in the meantime, I’m starting a T-shirt campaign of my own. Mine’s going to say “I’m determined to have a life. With kids who play sports.” Any takers?

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in
The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.

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