As the saying goes, "behind every overscheduled child is a great..."
Well, ok... There is no such saying. But, maybe there should be.
Just ask Phil and Amy Matthews.* Parents of three (two boys, ages eleven and nine, and a girl, seven), they both work at demanding jobs to make ends meet. Add extracurricular activities to the mix, and they barely have time to breathe.
On Friday evenings one of them shuttles the older kids over to the local pool, or elsewhere, for a swim practice or competition. If it's just practice they rarely arrive home before nine p.m.--after a meet, even later. On Saturdays the family gets an early start for soccer, basketball, or baseball -depending on the season-then rushes over to the pool for additional swim practice. And Sunday? More of the same--with day- long swim competitions, afternoon games and an early religious school carpool thrown in for good measure.
The driving demands aren't the end of the story for Phil and Amy, though. Like many working parents, they have children whose active lives require endless transportation. Meaning, the Matthews are not just busy--they are stretched way too thin. In addition to driving their children around from place to place, day after day, there are team snacks to haul, uniforms to wash, equipment to transport, and different practice and game schedules to coordinate and juggle.
"Last Saturday I had to wash and cut fifty oranges and put them in individual bags--all by 6:30 a.m.--because I had forgotten it was our turn to provide snack," Amy sighs. "We got to the soccer field by 8:30 for one game, then went to another field for another one. All we seem to do is race around in ‘fast forward.' And each week it gets worse and worse. Phil and I barely have time for a conversation. Sometimes we even have to e-mail if there is something important to communicate. Our weekends are an exhausting blur of sporting events, practices, and carpools."
Things aren't much better during the week either. Most of the driving falls on Amy, a web designer who can often work from home. Phil, a professional, helps out when he can, though, leaving the office early on Mondays so he can drive to swim practice--and so Amy can take their daughter to her ballet and hip hop classes. And the rest of the week resembles the blur of the weekend: Tuesday, religious school and karate; Wednesday, swim and piano; Thursday, basketball, baseball (seasonal) for the boys and tennis for their sister; and Friday, swim, swim, and more swim. All of this leaves little time for anything but a few hours sleep each night--especially when meals and homework are factored in.
Not every family is as overscheduled as Amy and Phil's, to be sure. The Matthews acknowledge that things are hectic because they allow their boys, who are athletic, to double up on sports. And then there is their guilt about their daughter--since her brothers are allowed to pursue their passions, they feel, why should their daughter be penalized? She should also be permitted to develop her interests--even if that means more activities on the calendar than hours in the day. "Fair is fair," says Phil.
It doesn't sound fair, though. Phil and Amy allocate many of the family's financial resources to their children's interests and activities. After living- costs and sports and class-related expenses, there isn't much left for other pursuits. Dates and couples' time are a thing of the past.
This lack of focus on the couple relationship is, according to experts, a recipe for disaster: "Partners who are always on the run are immensely stressed. They are fatigued and ill tempered. They have no patience. Because they are so fatigued and are just keeping up, events and disagreements that might have elicited a 'whatever' wave of the hand, lead very quickly to angry exchanges, explosions, distancing, and eventually even dissolution of the relationship," says Dr. Lois Meredith, a couples' and individual therapist in New York City.
The antidote: slow down--literally. Couples need down time and time alone.
Couples' time is critical for busy parents who want to keep their connection to one another--and who want to ensure their relationship remains strong. Running in circles isn't good for anyone because it hinders the development of intimacy. According to Dr. Meredith, "Intimacy takes time; first at the level of self awareness: what am I feeling? ‘How can I express this to my loved one in such a way that they will feel supported and not just criticized'--this is the language of intimacy. It requires sitting with the other, looking at faces reading what body language tells us--and for those who didn't learn this in our families of origin--it requires the development of a whole new skill set: including putting words on what we are feeling, as well as developing true empathy." Spouses need one on one time to get to know one another--away and apart from how they interact and relate as parents.
So what about all those after school activities? Well-intentioned parents might actually be doing their children a disservice by hindering the development of bonding and by interfering with opportunities for building spontaneous and intimate relationships. What kids really need--more than extra violin lessons or additional private coaching sessions--is family time with parents who are connected and able to relate to their children, and to one another.
*names have been changed