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A month of mothers and mania ...
It’s ironic that May is the month that includes Mother’s Day, because every single mom I have talked to this month has felt unusually scrambled, overwhelmed, and basically exhausted.
I had a few get-togethers with mom friends scheduled and subsequently canceled this month, mostly because moms were busy running to kids’ sporting events, or they were busy taking their kids to the doctor for yet another strep throat test.
Somehow everyone in my family except for me got strep throat this month, which sounds great, except that meant I was cleaning toilets and washing sheets and buying new toothbrushes while also dosing myself up with allergy medicine and nasal spray.
The moms I talked this month and I all came to a consensus, across America, that for some reason in this May of 2023, it seems like every single kids’ activity decided to put as many games, concerts, events, and showcases on the calendar as possible.
I think some of this is pandemic hangover. We all remember the months and years of cancellations (which wasn’t really all bad; it led to creativity and family togetherness - in the midst of terror and suffering due to COVID, and many essential workers were away from home working the whole time anyway, but I digress) - and it seems like in some ways there’s this panic to make up for lost time.
A lot of kids I know are in multiple traveling sports all in one season. The parents and the kids alike all seem to wear this kind of omnipresent bewildered look, like how did we get here, as we hand over yet another $10-20 gate charge to watch our kids play AAU basketball in a frantic, crowded, sweaty gym.
Last spring, we got caught in the trap of flag football and basketball for one kid; soccer and t-ball for the other, all at the same time. This year they both picked to just play basketball in the spring, and I’m still spending lots of weeknights and weekends driving to games and practices, getting well-acquainted with various high school dilapidated and dirty bathrooms - some with some interesting graffiti, and learning the varieties of concession stand hot dogs, at least one of which came with a moldy bun.
I think it’s easy for people outside the May-hem to look at parents and kids judgmentally, like, Look at that over-scheduled family. Don’t they know it’s all a grift?
Let’s be real, I think most of what’s happening in America right now, including in our government, is basically a grift, and if you want to really get into it, it’s probably because we have no real social safety net and everyone, including the upper-middle-class, is worried about paying their mortgage and affording college for their kids, even if some of that worry might be unhinged.
As I’ve spent this month of May-hem chatting with my fellow moms and parents and kids’ teachers and coaches, I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s really warranted in this over scheduled, out-of-control situation is not really more judgment or shaming of parents/moms (we get plenty of that, trust me), but instead some sympathy and a glimpse at the larger reasons for how we all got here.
Millennial parents, many of us who were raised with the infamous “participation trophies” and soccer Saturdays, are spending more money on our children than any generation before us. Things that used to be free or at least a reduced cost (like a lot of summer community activities) now all come with a price tag, and parents keep paying it because it doesn’t really seem like there’s a choice.
This has been written about many times in the past, including byand recently, but it’s kind of amazing how the American economy continues to operate as though there’s consistently one spouse who stays at home (guess which gender that spouse is typically assumed to be), while at the same time the American economy also operates on the assumption that families are supported by dual incomes.
This is how you end up, like we did last week, with elementary school track and field days attended by parents carrying laptops while concurrently attending Zoom meetings, trying to somehow do everything all at once. We haven’t mastered the meta verse yet, so until then parents just have the chauffeur lifestyle and jobs that are on-call all the time.
I also noticed that this May of 2023, the month of moms and may-hem and maybe making up for time lost, that there just weren’t as many parents at some of the school events as there were in the past. More kids (and parents) were missing from a school-night music concert, I imagine at least partially because many of them had multiple sporting events last night, and sometimes parents tend to prioritize the things they pay for over the things they don’t (public school), which leads to all sorts of negative (unintended) consequences for America’s public education system. I won’t write at-length on this now, because it deserves its own series of essays.
One truth I know for sure, though, this glorious and romping and running May, is that parents and kids and families are tired. April was tax month, and between inflation, rising home costs, and the loss of pandemic-era benefits like the child tax credit payments, most of the families I talked to found themselves financially strapped, especially after also paying for some way to keep kids occupied, entertained, maybe educated (?) over the summer.
I realize as I write this that maybe the rising costs of yuppie sports teams and summer camps might not be top-of-mind for global and American parents living in the midst of war and poverty, where parents just want to keep their kids safe and fed and aren’t necessarily concerned with them learning Mandarin or playing spring hockey. But (a), I think writers have to write about what they know - and this is what I know; and (b), I also think it’s important to realize how interconnected all of our lives really are. (I try to make that one of the themes of this newsletter, in fact).
The challenges of the mom in Ukraine rushing with her kids to the bomb shelter underground below their apartment; the challenge of the Dad in Sudan gathering up his valuables to rush with his kids to take a bus to the border and escape the war; the challenge of the mom in Guatemala leaving kids with grandma and making a desperate dash to the U.S./Mexico border, in hopes of a better life; the challenge of the dad in Brooklyn who’s trying to afford another month of violin lessons and Arabic for his kid in addition to affording rent on a New York City apartment; the mom in suburban Minneapolis pulling up to the ATM on a Sunday morning to get cash for game entry and concessions while seeking out cheap clothes for the family at Costco … we are all more connected than we might think.
The perpetual sense of American economic anxiety and concern for safety and security for American kids in the midst of school shootings, mass shootings, and gun violence I think fuels a great deal of economic inequality and violence in this country. It’s tough to see to taking away money or privilege from yourself when you feel so insecure and worried about your kids’ future, even if some of those worries and fears are being flamed by money-and-power-hungry right-wing media atmosphere that fuels racist and classist hate … Anxious parents are parents who want some sense of control, wherever they can find it. So they misguidedly ban books and pull their kids out of public school. They pay thousands of dollars in private coaches and music teachers and drama instructors and tutors.
They’re (we’re) unimaginably wealthy on a global scale, but they (we) can’t see it - because all they (we) see on TV and social media and even in their (our) own neighborhoods are people who seemingly have more; people whose kids will beat out their (our) kids for future college admissions and later, jobs and security and mortgage applications.
Parents today grew up in America with a the start of a lot of beautiful gifts, like the microwave and CDs and MTV and the Internet and yes, youth sports, and girls sports(!) and fun. It was times of great American prosperity and power in the late 80s and 90s and early aughts. We also grew up with a near-constant sense of the earth shifting beneath our feet, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, which occurred when many of today’s parents of young kids were teenagers.
Our parents told us if we did all the things and got all the (weighted) grades and filled out the applications, we’d be OK. Many of us did it all, only to find out, often after college, that life actually didn’t work like that. The suburban neighborhoods where many of us grew up were filled with foreclosures and people in their 60s (some of them our friends’ parents) who couldn’t afford their homes, while their kids were saddled with student loan debt and credit card debt.
But just like in the early days of the pandemic, when rethinking the way we lived American life and commerce seemed potentially possible, we turned away from reform and turned toward doing the same things that already weren’t working, but just did them harder. More teams. More lessons. More money.
I think for every parent out there screaming on a sports field, inside is a parent who is terrified for their kid. They know they can’t really protect their kid, whether it’s from a scary young man bursting into their school with an assault rifle and a bulletproof vest, or from violence on the streets near their home, or from an economic climate that seems destined to obliterate the middle class. Or from politicians and religious leaders who care only about power and money and covering up abuse.
Most of the time, I think those parents know deep down that the game doesn’t ultimately matter. Win or lose. That their kid probably isn’t going to be the next LeBron James or Steph Curry or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols or Alexei Ovechkin or even Caitlin Clark.
Instead, I see their anxiety and frustration on the field coming out of the same sense of powerlessness that is affecting so many of us in the world right now.
I want you to know, especially my fellow moms muddling our way through the end of this month of May-hem and mania, that I also see the good on the field and the court and in the parking lots where we pick up and drop off our kids. I see you, at the end of a long day of work and laundry and practice and a rushed dinner, trudge into your son’s room and kiss him on the forehead and turn on a sleep meditation. You both breathe: in and out, in and out.
On the field and the court he was a monster, big for his age and powerful and talented beyond his years, with adults clapping for every goal and basket, but I see that you know he too is still that baby that once slept this way in a crib, his soft eyelashes curling over his eyes, finally, mercifully, shut.
Maybe in June we can all get some rest.
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