I may call myself mamaguru on the Internet, but I am not immune to shadows of self-doubt when mom chats turn to different parenting choices.
I am now in the thick of elementary school with a first and second grader. No babies here. Now that my children are bonafied kids, their peers are starting to diverge. Elite soccer teams. Private tennis lessons. Piano and violin. Acting and dance. Kung Fu and Tae Kwon Do. Archery and French lessons. We are no longer in the realm of mommy-and-me intro classes. Excellence is emerging just as free time is disappearing.
It’s all very exciting.
Last week, as I was rushing to greet my kids at their classroom door, another mom stopped me to ask what extracirculars my kids are in.
“Not much,” I admitted. “They do the after school sports at school. But that’s it. You know, budget. What about your kids?”
“No, not that much,” she said, clearly relieved. “Just a weekly music class.”
The next morning another mom couldn’t contain her excitement at her daughter being cast in her third play.
“That’s wonderful!” we lingering moms chirped, knowing how eager she was to be a stage mom.
She went on to say how happy she was that all those lessons were paying off, and how tickled she was to see her daughter catch the acting bug. Other moms agreed. It is important to sometimes push. Kids need that nudge. These were not crazy, obsessive parents. They also spoke about letting their children quit activities they didn’t like after they completed the season or round of prepaid lessons.
My eyes grew big as an owl’s taking it all in. They are on a path I haven’t traveled.
Then there are the league sports. Last year Max’s coaches urged us to put him on additional soccer teams. He was a standout player from his very first practice. Jack is showing the same natural ability. Both kids beat the majority of their older classmates running the mile at cross-country practice. A mom with an older son recently complained to me about spending Mother’s Day on a soccer field, while also bragging about his athletic scholarship. She did it all in one breath, inhaling the sacrifice and exhaling the reward.
The pressure is on.
Where are we? It is hard not to second guess my own parenting choices with so much information ripe for comparison coming my way. It’s especially a challenge because my parenting attitude with kids is practically opposite from what I thought it would be before I had kids.
When I imagined motherhood, I pictured giving my children every opportunity to succeed. Although I took dance, piano, and choir as a child, I always wanted more. I pined for lessons every single day of the week, something we could not afford and something I never fully expressed to my mom. I’m a passionate, driven person by nature, and always propelled myself towards excellence. But as a parent, I resist that urge.
The world has changed so much from my girlhood. It is impossible to recreate the neighborhood ruckus my husband and I grew up with. Although I am home and my kids play outside daily, the other kids in the neighborhood are absent, channeled off to various activities or waiting to come home from aftercare. I cannot change this. I cannot create the pickup games of kickball my husband played until dark, or send my kids off to roam the neighborhood on their bikes like I did. It’s a different world.
Parenting, well life for that matter, is about choices. One precludes another. Instead of filling my kids’ lives with the extra activities I craved as a child, I find myself guarding the gaps of freedom I took for granted.
I know my kids would love to play more soccer, but the schedule is two nights a week and every Saturday during the season. That means rushed homework, early dinners, and no play time. That means no Saturday trips to the zoo or lazy Lego mornings. Those ten hours a week (commute included) are precious. I am not yet willing to give them up.
Still, it’s hard.
The choices other parents are making are the same choices I thought I would make, and I can’t help but question the road not taken. Especially because the road they chose has such tangible attributes: recitals, performances, games, championships, scholarships. In moments of anxiety I find myself wondering: What are we doing? Nothing! What important thing is keeping us at home? Nothing! Egads! What is the point of doing nothing?
Those doubts arise when my kids are fighting or whining. They pop up when everyone seems bored and ready to vegetate in front of the TV for hours. That’s when I recall the conversations I’ve had with other moms and all the great things their kids are doing.
But then we spend the morning at the beach. We are all happy. The children boldly carry their surfboards into the sea, and then make drip castles, or play buried treasure. We sport goggles and spot stingrays, jellyfish, barracudas, and shoals of fish in the hundreds. We draw contrasts to what we saw the week before, the waves and the wild life. This is our turf.
Or I drag the kids on a unwilling hike after an outdoor bluegrass concert. Fifty-two steps in, we spy a staircase to nowhere and go off-path to explore, each of us taking our own twisting route, staying within voice shot, and eventually emerging in a clearing together. Then we see one, no two, no three, what?! six raccoons! The formerly reluctant hikers pad slowly back to the car when it is time to go. We stop at an Indian restaurant on the way home and the kids name the Hindu gods on the walls. Everyone does a good job tasting foods and finding something delicious enough to eat, though we each have different pallets. On the way home we compare the bluegrass bands and all agree on a favorite.
Or I write, my husband does yard work, one kid colors, and the other builds an airport on the floor. For a time we lead our separate lives together, but everyone stops for lemonade. At dinner I regale them with family stories of their great aunts and uncles jumping off roofs, throwing vacuum cleaners, and rolling Brussels sprouts under the table. These stories are older than any one of us. They are the history of before we were born. We can’t stop laughing.
In those moments I am so full of life, I can’t distinguish it from gratitude. Every breath is a thank you. The sensation of being alive is heightened, and I can see how good life is. My body buzzes with exuberance but I take it slow, relaxing into the flow. Every fiber of my being screams: this is exactly the childhood I want to give my kids!
But we can’t touch it.
I want to give my kids a childhood full of intangible wonder. That requires space. And faith. We have nothing but snapshots, journals, and memories to take with us. To account for our time. Is that enough?
I think of my friends and the childhoods they are giving their kids. One is not better than the next. Some of them want their children to achieve greatness. Childhood is their training ground. There is something to that. Dancing is fun, so is soccer! Certain accomplishments need early specialization and deeply ingrained discipline. That was what I craved as a child.
When I imagine my own children’s futures, success matters less to me than happiness. My secret hope is for them to be scientists, because I want them to wake up excited about life and ready for discovery. Science is the field of exploration and wonder. To be honest, I would be disappointed if my kids went into business or finance. I place little stock in money as a path to happiness. I’d be delighted if they chose the arts, my personal inclination, but that seems to be something that should be self-initiated. I expose them to music, theater, fine art, literature, and dance, but wait to hear if their hearts beckon towards artistic expression.
Instead of seeing their childhood as laying the foundation for their future success, I see it is a vast wilderness to explore. I want to push their boundaries and urge them to chart their own maps. I want to make their stomping grounds be the entire universe, including imaginary realms. I hope along the way we leave a few treasures for them to go back and mine as adults: a deep curiosity, a love of learning, knowledge of small things, an abiding connection to nature, and an insatiable love of life.
The real stuff of life is intangible, but also indelible.