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From football to ballet, could your kids be doing too many activities?

After the 'great pause' of lockdown, many families are taking stock of just how busy their lives were in the last school year. Perhaps there are important lessons to learn about overscheduling our children, writes Kathy Donaghy

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Kathy Donaghy with her sons Oirghiall and Dallan. They all got to enjoy more quality downtime together on lockdown. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy with her sons Oirghiall and Dallan. They all got to enjoy more quality downtime together on lockdown. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

©Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley

Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor

Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor

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Kathy Donaghy with her sons Oirghiall and Dallan. They all got to enjoy more quality downtime together on lockdown. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Mums aren't supposed to strop and throw tantrums. They're not supposed to rage and shout. But caught up in an endless cycle of activities, of ferrying children to soccer and running and swimming, it only takes something small to tip you over the edge.

It's a Saturday morning pre-lockdown and it feels too early to be up. My sons and I are in the car on the road again. The boys have swimming lessons and we're late. Again. "Have you packed your gear?" I ask. There's a noise of rummaging through bags in the back seat when one of them pipes up: "I forgot my shorts."

We're more than halfway into our half-hour's drive to the pool when I realise that this is an exercise in futility. No shorts means no lesson for the youngest, who's in the pool first before his brother's session. We've all got up early, rushed breakfast and hit the road to no avail. I try counting to 10. I feel like exploding.

Psychologists in the US are exploring a phenomenon called 'mom rage', something that emerges when mothers get caught in a cycle of trying to do it all and end up feeling overwhelmed and sometimes angry. Lockdown gave many of us the chance to pause, to step off the treadmill of our daily lives of pick-ups and drop-offs. The stress and sometimes anger caused by trying to do everything dissipated and many of us don't want to go back there.

Reconnect

While the pandemic has been a time of huge grief, stress and anxiety and sadness for so many families, this pause has also presented families with a chance to reconnect, to take their foot off the gas and just be home with their kids.

Fast forward a few months after the abrupt end to scheduled activities and I ask are any of us worse off without all the extra-curricular activities we'd signed the kids up to? Evenings now are spent at home over easygoing dinners. Saturday mornings are spent having a lie-in. While my husband works away in Dublin a couple of days a week, I usually spent Fridays and Saturdays going at break-neck speed. Lockdown allowed us to slow down. Once 'normal' resumes, some activities are going to have to go.

According to Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Service, the pause has offered us a time for reflection and we're realising how time-poor we've been.

While he says the flip-side is perhaps we've had too much time and there's an eagerness to get reacquainted with our old lives, we do have to ask, 'How much is enough?' Most of the time we don't know how much is enough until we've crossed the line, he says.

Dr Noctor believes there is a social pressure that catches up with parents. This happens, he says, when WhatsApp groups start pinging with messages about activities starting up and parents feel bad if their child isn't participating.

"I think everything has to go on the table," he says in terms of looking at the family schedule of activities.

"There has been a spring cleaning element to lockdown with people saying, 'I'm getting rid of this as I never wear it'," he says, pointing out that the same pruning needs to happen for the activities.

Dr Noctor makes the point that children will never know that they're overstretched. They might be saying they love all the activities but they're not going to know why they're feeling anxious. The lack of what he calls casual activities (those not about medals or results or being the best) are very limited and this can be off-putting for many children who are not driven in that way, he says.

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Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor

Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor

Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor

 

"We're hearing about strength and conditioning coaches for under-12 teams and this drive for elitism all the time. The concept of play doesn't exist. When you're scheduling your kids' activities, where's the craic? So many drop out because it's just not fun. Whatever happened to youth clubs where you just go and chill out? Everything is so focused on goals or competitions - there's no downtime," says Dr Noctor.

Reappraise

For mum-of-two Fiona Walsh from Rochestown in Co Cork, lockdown presented not only a chance to pause but an opportunity to reappraise their lives. She and her husband Tony took the decision to move house further into the Cork countryside and Fiona has decided that she will continue to work from home in the longer term.

Fiona, who works for a pharmaceutical company and also runs her own life coaching business, says her daughters Robyn (5) and Martha (8) had been busy with swimming, hockey, art, gymnastics and soccer. However, in lockdown, she started many days with a relaxing early morning walk with her eldest daughter.

"We've been doing more things together. We've been going for walks. Not that the money is the main issue but when you added up the cost of all the things they were doing, it was costing about €100 a week," says Fiona.

"To be honest, lockdown taught us to re-evaluate things. We found another property in east Cork as we want to be more in the countryside. I think the one thing we'll continue with is the swimming lessons as that's a life skill. In the future the kids will really have to think about what they want to do. I've fallen into the trap of thinking there's all these things and I have to give them the opportunity. I'd rather have the afternoons free after school to go for a walk with them rather than sitting in a car waiting for them to finish something," she says.

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Kathy Donaghy with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

 

At her home in east Galway, mum-of-seven Sharon Dooley looks back on her life pre-lockdown and describes what she was trying to do as 'ridiculous'. "You know when you're caught up in the middle of it, you just get on with it. But I was having to decide who I was going to be late for," says Sharon, who runs an annual event called 'Ireland's Got Curves' as well as hosting a weekly body positive online show for women called 'On The Plusside".

While her two older children Mercedes and James are grown up with children of their own, her other children Oisín (15), Clodagh (14), Liam (12), Ava (11) and Amber Rose (8) do a multitude of activities from hurling to dancing. Sharon says she and her husband Henry regularly pass one another on the road as they ferry their children to and from their activities.

"Having a larger family, you can feel like you don't want them to miss out on things because there's more of them. It was a stupid pressure created by myself to make sure they didn't miss out. I'd regularly find myself pitch-side editing videos for my show. There were all of these little stressful things that I didn't even realise - I don't want to go back to that," she says.

"Covid is exhausting and horrible and people have died. For me it was such a break. It was like an 'oh wow' moment. I started painting again and I had time to myself. That quality time with myself - I need that. I'm a much better mum. I don't want to go running and racing anymore. I don't know how I'm going to manage it but I'm going to cut back on activities. I think I'm going to limit them to one each. I've realised that you can't pour from an empty cup," says Sharon.

Over-scheduling

In her book, Cotton Wool Kids, author and psychotherapist Stella O'Malley talks about how over-scheduling kids leads to distressed kids. "I think we've all seen the other side. If we go back to doing exactly what we did before, we've missed something," she says.

O'Malley believes that parents really need to assess things as a family and ask if their child is going to do multiple activities, 'What can be dropped?'. This could also mean asking if the child needs to do every activity every year or could they take a break from something?

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Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley

 

While she says the desire on the part of parents for their children to do activities and learn new things is coming from a good place, there is a part of our culture that wants it all. "If you try to have it all, you end up having nothing. All these things are not bad but the combination of so many things in a day is too much. We have an opportunity here to make our lives better and to realise we don't have to do everything every single year," she says.

For five- and six-year-olds, O'Malley believes it's enough for them to get to school and back. "Up to the age of eight, you need to be quite wary of over-scheduling your children. Between 8 and 13 - that's the heyday of activities - is where you need to decide what should go and what shouldn't and question whether they have to do every season. I'd urge people to step back and say, 'Let's do one or two things'," she says.

Mum to Julia (8) and Danielle (4), Maria Rushe from Co Donegal says she's coming out of lockdown with different priorities. "I found myself becoming that person who said 'Let's do it' to everything. I like being busy and I thrive on being busy but I will balance things a bit better and the girls won't be running to as many things," says Maria, a secondary school teacher.

There were days when she'd leave home at 7am and not be home till after 9pm but she's determined those days are over. "We live in a culture where we want to give our children every opportunity we can. The lockdown has shown us that being home is okay too," says Maria, who writes a blog called the S-Mum.

Dr Colman Noctor says these decisions to cut things out won't be easy for parents. Deciding what goes and what stays will depend on each family and on the size of the family. Making sure the 'schedule' has downtime is as important as the scheduled activities, he says. Asking yourself honestly as a parent how much have you spoken to your child since they've come home from school is part of this process of evaluating the busyness of life, he believes.

And if we resolutely don't want to go back to the frenetic merry-go-round of running around, there's one piece of advice Dr Noctor leaves me with that most parents will heed. It's quite simple but post-lockdown it resonates more.

"Count how many times in a day you tell your child to hurry up," he says. For most of us that answer should help us come to our own conclusions about what's best for our families going forward.

Irish Independent