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Mommy 500

Mommy 500

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When I was pregnant with my oldest child, Brandon, I traded in my red Mustang convertible for a beige Grand Caravan. Little did I know at the time, this super-sized vehicle would become my stockcar for the Mommy 500 - an eighteen-year race whose finish line is painted in acceptance letters to prestigious universities.

The first time I revved my engines in this marathon was two weeks into my maternal career, when I received a letter from an enterprise that I'll call Gymbananas. "It's never too early to begin thinking about college," read the primary-colored flyer, which went on to list course offerings for infants ages six-weeks and up. Yes, Gymbananas had a special message for me – a sleep-deprived, hormonally challenged new mother – and it was that if I denied my baby adequate exposure to bubbles and clapping songs before he learned to roll over, I would irreparably hinder his chances of getting into Harvard. Before I could say Oy Vey, I was giving a perky woman on the telephone my credit card number to secure my son's spot in the Wednesday morning pre-crawler class.

Before I could say Oy Vey, I was giving a perky woman my credit card numberI was at Brandon's kindergarten Rosh Hashanah celebration (my first official program as a grade school parent) when it became painfully evident that my Gymbananas era had been but a leisurely practice lap along the Mommy 500 and I would now be flooring my pedal to the metal.

"So what are Brandon's fall extracurriculars?" asked the mother sitting next to me in the apples and honey corner.

"He's playing soccer. What about Jeremy?" I replied following Mommy etiquette to a T.

"Well, let's see," she answered, trying (unsuccessfully) to sound nonchalant. "Jeremy's fall extracurricular sport is tennis, his fall extracurricular instrument is violin, his fall extracurricular martial art is tae kwon do, and his fall extracurricular academic is science."

Before I could determine whether an extracurricular academic was an oxymoron, my wheels were racing. I spent the rest of the morning signing Brandon up for an array of extracurriculars, and trying to figure out how I'd managed to walk out of the kindergarten Rosh Hashanah celebration indelibly inscribed in the Book of Stress.

A Message from Bubbe

"And vy should you be inscribed in the book of Stress? " my bubbe asked as I explained why I'd arrived so farklempt to Shabbat dinner. "If a race is making you meshugena, then drop out of the race!"

She clearly doesn't get it, I thought to myself. And how could she get it? How could someone from a simpler generation even begin to understand how it feels to have everyone from Gymbananas executives, to media moguls to the other moms in carpool line reminding me that if I don't fuel up my kids with everything from pinch-potting to pitching lessons, they'll be left in the dust come college application time?

And then there's that whole over-achievement thing. I mean I grew up at the height of the women's lib movement - raised to be strong and in charge, driven and successful. How could my ninety-five-year-old grandmother possibly see that I'd put every bit of that energy and determination into my life choices, my education, my career - and I wasn't about to drop the ball when it came to my kids?

Wait a minute! Where was Brandon's age group?And so I plugged ahead, dutifully devoting every afternoon and weekend to schlepping my family from activity to activity in the name of achieving perfect children (perfect defined as academically-gifted, athletically-exceptional, musically-prodigious, socially-popular and self esteem-saturated).

Then, one day, many years and laps around the Mommy 500 track later, I had an epiphany. It was the annual soccer registration day and my three boys and I (Baby Emma in tow) were - for the eighth year running – spending a steamy July afternoon waiting in line to ensure they made it into the most prestigious league in the area. Finally at the registrar's desk, I grabbed the applications and began filling out the elaborate forms. First Jake, then Alex, then Brandon… Wait a minute! Where was Brandon's age group?

Certain the absence of my oldest son's division was a misprint, I pointed out the mistake to the check-collecting registrar. "Sorry," the woman told me, "Metro Soccer doesn't have a middle school division."

"But what am I supposed to do?" I said. "Brandon has played soccer every fall since he was three. How will he spend his Sundays?"

"My kids like the lake," she said. "It's much less crowded in the fall. The beach isn't too far either."

Before I could reply that going to the lake seemed like a silly waste of time that could be otherwise spent fine-tuning soccer skills, Brandon chimed in. "You know, Mom, that does sound kind of fun."

"What sounds fun?" I asked, glancing back at the sea of anxious parents, fingers itching for those golden application forms.

"Going to the lake."

"And the beach!" added Jake.

"Yeah!" said Alex, "I could finally use the new boogie board I got for Chanukah two years ago!"

Suddenly, I felt myself entering a transformational spin, fueled with the realization that the check-collecting registrar - and Brandon, Alex and Jake - were absolutely right. It would be fun to spend Sunday afternoons at the lake rather than at the soccer field for a change. In fact, it would be more than fun; it would be positively liberating.

My ultimate goal was not to raise spelling bee championsI could finally see that I'd been paralyzed by the inflated expectations of our over-achieving, anxiety-filled culture; that I'd been basing the decisions I made for my children on what other people thought rather than on what I knew in my heart to be true. I alas understood that my ultimate goal in parenting was not to raise spelling bee champions, prom queens and soccer stars but to bring up fulfilled, resilient, empowered kids.

In this newfound insight, I discovered the strength and courage I needed to take my bubbe's advice to heart and step out of the race for kiddie perfection. I was alas able to ease up on the pressure, scale back the extracurriculars, and begin enjoying my children for who they are today (not who I hoped they would be at high school graduation).

I'm not going to lie to you. Steering clear of the Mommy 500 has not been easy. Especially with all those other racers whizzing by me on the track! But I've managed to do it, and so can you. All it takes is some good, dependable AAA Roadside Assistance. That's right, AAA. Accept, Avoid, Accentuate. All the tools you need to keep your family safe, grounded and miles away from the race lights.

Reprinted with permission from the book Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah by Sharon Duke Estroff, M.A.T., published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY November 29, 2009

Strike a Balance You do have to strike a balance, though. I remember reading about the famous surfing family, which raised nine kids on the beach in a small camper. They had no pressure at all, the kids never went to school, it was summer vacation the whole year long. When the kids became adults, some of them (particularly the daughter of the family) regretted never having had a formal education. Sometimes you do have to push kids a little bit. As one rabbi said, "Educate a boy 'al pi darko' according to his path, but what if he just wants to play all day long?" Older women in particular resent that their brothers were pushed to complete college and become doctors or lawyers, while they were simply told to marry. The "feminization of poverty" came about because women were not pushed to achieve success in later life. You have to strike a balance - some pushing is good. Reply

Shaina Rivkah Kamman LA, Ca November 6, 2009

to 'good for you' Hi, i know that you posted yourself as anonomous, but if there is someway that we could talk or email, i would really appreciate it. i come from a similar background and would appreciate talking things through with you....
thanks Reply

Sarah WB, MI/USA via baischabad.com December 2, 2008

It all comes down to one word: perspective. The rat racers may win the race, but they are still as mindless and spiritually empty as rats. My cousin applied for a scholorship to study in England, in the late 60's, when international study was still a rarity, and very prestigious. She applied because her friends were doing so, but she had no hope of getting it, so she treated it as a joke. When asked, "What do you do in your spare time?" She replied, "Waste it." She thoroughly enjoyed her year in England. She went out and enjoyed the surroundings, the people, and life. She did not just "accomplish" something in a library or a lab that could have been in her hometown. Reply

anonymous November 24, 2008

I'd wanted to be what you were. G-d had other plans. I never got on that mouse wheel and spent years wishing to hop on. Recently a friend heard that I was wrapping up my BA and looking into a master's degree. "But why? You have seven kids left at home. It only gets worse!" So I quit wishing. I am much happier. Reply

Anonymous February 3, 2008

good for you! Good for you for ending your participation in the rat race! I was forced in by my parents, and I thought I enjoyed the pressure, I thought I was thriving. The day the acceptance letter to a certain Ivy League college arrived, we knew all the work paid off. I decided to take a year off to study in Israel before going, and suddenly, everything I thought to be true was turned upside down. Suddenly, I didn't want to be in the rat race anymore. I stayed a second year, and came back with a diamond ring and plans to attend Touro college. It was tough for my parents to swallow, but they now see I am much happier living a religious lifestyle with my wonderful husband, and that I am much happier raising our children than being a high-powered exec. Although I have no regrets about the first 18 years of my life, I still sometimes wish I had changed course sooner than I did. I am glad to hear a sane mother out there- your kids will thank you one day. Reply

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