All parents feel overburdened at times; for many, the job of raising kids today is (literally) not a Sunday stroll in the park. Popular memes like the following are not likely to help matters, however. In her New York Times Sunday Review piece, “The Non-Joie of Parenting”, Jennifer Conlin, recently returned to the United States, writes of the difficulty in making the transition from the more relaxed world of Euro-parenting:

I have been reading with great nostalgia Pamela Druckerman’s musings on the calmness of French parenting in “Bringing Up Bébé.” I too was a parent in France, having given birth to my son there some 15 years ago, after having a daughter, now 20, in England, and her sister, now 16, in Belgium. 

Ms Conlin’s current family schedule is something to which many North American parents can relate:

Now our entire adult life revolves around the children’s activities. The last two weekends alone, my daughter was in three performances of the school musical, had softball practice, a state solo ensemble competition (that ended at 12:30 p.m., a 40-minute drive from the musical, which started at 2 p.m.) and a forensics tournament. My son had the musical (he manned the spotlight), a baseball practice and a science olympiad contest (with a 6:30 a.m. bus departure).

It is hard to look forward to summer, because we have already been told our annual August vacation with the cousins can’t happen because “preseason” for both of my children’s fall sports starts in mid-August, and in my daughter’s case, will consist of both a morning and an afternoon training session. (I plan to pack her a picnic and leave her there.) Not only has my gas bill grown astronomically because of the chauffeuring, but my waist size has also multiplied from walking less and eating more. (Who has time to cook when the clock says it’s pickup time again?)

And don’t get me started on my lack of an adult life… 

Her article makes several valid points. While I have no cross-cultural parenting experiences with which to back up my own observations, I can say that my exclusively North American family life is not like hers, or indeed like the lives of many people I know.

Very few families of my acquaintance do not occasionally lament that they are too busy, over-involved, stressed to the max. It was partly for this reason that my husband and I opted, many years ago, to home-educate our children. It’s not a cure-all for what ails the modern family, but it has allowed us an extra degree of flexibility and control over our time. We have also had to limit the number of extra-curricular activities in which our children are involved. Some of these choices were made by default: like most parents, our discretional income is limited, and because we live in a sparsely populated rural area, some activities are simply not on offer.

Incidentally, I am not sure what is meant by the “lack of an adult life”. You generally should not become a parent until you reach adulthood, and the years spent in active parenting do, by definition, mostly revolve around the kids. In order to raise children well (to be secure, healthy, confident, well-trained, ultimately decent and productive human beings) you need to put in some time and effort. With a little more effort, spouses can make time for each other. The key is balance, and for most families this is the challenging part.

As a parent, you have to make a lot of choices. One of them is how much time you will spend together as a family, and how much time you will be involved in various other activities. This should include, by the way, not just sport, culture and recreation, but also things like community volunteering, which teaches children that life is also about making it better for those less fortunate.

I wonder if it occurs to Western middleclass parents that many of the activities we feel we cannot do without are unaffordable luxuries to parents in many other parts of the globe, or even in other parts of the city, and yet every nation on earth is capable of producing well-rounded, creative, and civilized human beings. How? But that’s a topic for another day.

Many North American parents feel not just a desire, but an obligation to offer their children the widest possible range of leisure experiences and activities. The choices are myriad: music lessons (Pick one—or more—of a hundred different instruments and musical styles, then decide: solo, ensemble, band, orchestra, choir, or a combination thereof?); sports (Which to choose? How many at once? Highly competitive or just for fun?); dance, drama, clubs, hobbies. Multiply by the number of children. Calculate the extra hours you as a parent will spend chauffeuring, waiting, fund-raising, cheering, volunteering, assistant-coaching. Multiply by the number of children. By this point, there is no need to wonder why you don’t have any “adult life”.

How much is too much? Where does “life enrichment” end and pushy-parent, stage-mom or hockey-dad syndrome begin? Should a pre-schooler’s life be so tightly scheduled that he develops severe anxiety issues? As children grow, they develop their strengths and preferences for how they wish to spend their after-school hours. The hard part for parents is knowing when to encourage, when to accommodate, and when to (regrettably) say no—or at least, not right now. Ultimately, the decision belongs to the parent. If it doesn’t, are you still the parent, or have you been relegated to chauffeur, lunch-packer and grudging financier?

Some families do not eat even one dinner together per week; on any given evening, the mother and father are dashing in different directions. Larger families find themselves going in three or four directions, which only works if you carpool, requiring complicated drop-off/pick-up schedules, or (in my rural area) numerous vehicles (and teens who can legally drive them).

The alternative is to tell your children that, unfortunately, they cannot do it all. This is not deprivation: it is reality. No one can do it all or have it all, not even people who seem to have all the time and money in the world. It is all right to tell your children that they will have to give up some activities entirely, or wait until next year or possibly even adulthood to experience them. Many North Americans are not willing to do this. They want their kids to do it all, play it all, learn it all, experience it all. And then they wonder why their life seems like the Neverending Story of Hellish Exhaustion.

Ms Conlin laments, and she is far from alone, that even Sundays are no longer days of family relaxation:

When I tried to invite another family over recently for a typically English Sunday lunch — a relaxed affair that usually lasts most of the afternoon with a lovely bottle of wine shared over a good roast, followed by a pudding and often a family board game — no one could come. All the kids, including mine, had activities, it turned out. So I spent the afternoon driving them around town as I usually do and went to the drive-through McDonald’s when they got hungry. 

Life is burdensome for many; when it’s burdensome as a result of our own choices, it is time to find a new balance. It’s basically a matter of priorities, which each family must decide for itself. Parents simply have to be aware that every choice has consequences. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a week, and only about eighteen years in a child’s life until they leave the nest. How many of those do you want to spend in the car—or the studio, field, track, gym or stadium, and how many do you want to spend strolling in the park?

Mariette Ulrich writes from Western Canada. She blogs at Family Edge.

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...