School is back in session and my little girl has reached a big milestone: kindergarten.
Since the birth of my daughter five and half years ago, I’ve assumed that this whole parenting thing would get easier over time. At least, I figured that we’d enjoy a few fairly blissful years of cute, sweet kids who mostly slept through the night until whatever age they would start asking for iPhones and discover social media.
But it turns out, I was wrong. This year has brought its own set of challenges that have left me asking myself the same question I’ve been asking since I gave my newborn daughter her first bath: am I doing this right?
Here’s the current challenge: my daughter made it to the “next level” of her extracurricular activities.
For the uninitiated, this is how it works: When your kids are toddlers or preschool age, you decide to get them involved in an activity or two. Maybe it’s a mommy (or daddy) and me gymnastics class. Perhaps it’s a little soccer league. You find something that fits your schedule, likely on a weekend. It’s cute. It’s fun. It probably takes thirty minutes. Everyone is happy.
But then, your kid starts to show some promise at whatever it is she’s doing. Or maybe she just gets older. It’s hard to tell when they’re young. Either way, she gets invited to the next level.
In our case, it was the Mighty Stars gymnastics class.
The problem is that the next level class is only offered at a specific time on a specific day. And more often than not, it’s not a time of day that works for most working mothers. (Mighty Stars practice on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:45 in the afternoon.)
What’s a family with two working parents to do?
If you depend on aftercare for childcare, then nothing. Your kid is out of luck.
On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to have a personal childcare provider, then you have some things to think about. Is that person willing to shuffle your kids between activities? Do you trust that person’s driving?
I am fortunate enough to have a family member who picks my kids up from school and takes care of them until I or my husband arrive home. This gives me some flexibility when it comes to after-school activities that a lot of families don’t have.
However, my kids’ school and the gymnastics facility are very close to each other but far from our home. I’m not comfortable asking my caregiver to pick the kids up, bring them home, and then take them back to gymnastics. It’s far too much driving and it would also deprive my two year old of sufficient time for his much needed afternoon nap.
To make Mighty Stars work, I had to arrange for my kids to stay at school later than the normal pick up time two days a week, but not as late as the normal aftercare pickup. My son takes a nap at school and then they head to my daughter’s gymnastics class. Fine. Except I pay a hefty premium for two days of partial aftercare two days a week for two kids.
On top of that, there’s the mom guilt - I’ll rarely get to see my daughter do gymnastics.
And then there’s the violin. My daughter has been playing the violin for a few months now, and she enjoys it. She learned from a violin teacher who came to the house on Wednesday evenings, and it worked well enough.
But, recently, my daughter’s violin teacher had to move away. When he called to tell me about the move, he gushed about her musical abilities and strongly recommended that I take her to certain violin school to continue lessons. It was, he insisted, the best place for my daughter.
He was a great teacher and I was touched by his praise, so of course I looked up the school. I discovered that this school seems pretty serious about teaching children to play violins, which is perfectly alright. But it’s not just about the kids.
On the school’s website, the violin program is described as “parent intensive.” They want whatever adult is most involved with the child’s musical development to attend all classes and help the child practice every day. So far, that person has been me. (I’m not sure my husband even knows what a musical scale is.)
And guess what? The vast majority of the school’s classes are after school but not after the typical workday. I spoke to the director on the phone and asked whether they have any classes after 6 p.m. He responded that no, they did not, since that’s kind of late for kids. Well, Mr. Director, I thought, it’s kind of early for working parents.
The inconveniences and logistical hoops leave me wondering if the juggling and cost are worth it. If I don’t find a way to make these activities work for my daughter, am I depriving her of valuable opportunities? Or does it not matter at this age? Is there a better way to manage this career and family balancing act?
As a working mother, I’m forced to consider these questions because the world of school and extracurricular activities is not set up for working parents. It’s more than the inconvenient times. It’s also the amount of time required of parents. It’s not just the violin that’s parent intensive. These days, almost all extracurricular activities, school projects, and even homework require more and more parental involvement.
And, more often than not, women are still shouldering the bulk of these responsibilities even in families with two working parents.
At the same time, the world of work is not set up for families. A New York Times’ piece published earlier this year discussed the increasing rewards for working long, inflexible hours, which has been a driver of gender gaps in seniority and pay.
In fact, “greedy” work has canceled the effect of women’s educational gains. Having it all” or getting anywhere close seems impossible when you constantly have to choose: your career or supporting your children’s budding interests and maybe being there to witness them.
No matter what you do, it feels like you are always shortchanging one or the other. It’s no wonder so many talented, highly educated women opt out of prestigious promising careers to stay at home or to take on more flexible but lower-paying positions.
We can hope that one day the world evolves to accommodate families with two working parents better. In the meantime, what’s the solution?
In our case, I’ll do my best to make the violin lessons work if it’s possible (i.e. there’s a weekend option) and if my daughter is motivated and really – I mean truly – wants to do it. But the school will have to accept that my daughter plays the violin – not me. She will have to practice on her own sometimes and I may not always be the person there during class. My husband is going to have to learn to read some music.
More fundamentally, I try to practice being grateful that I even have the privilege to have to make these decisions, which helps with perspective.
Life isn’t perfect and decisions about raising kids aren’t easy. But my kids know they are loved and they’ll likely turn out fine. If they don’t, I’m pretty sure missing out on an extracurricular activity at age five won’t be to blame.