Emphatically not the way I wanted to parent. I believe in family dinner. I want to be one of those families that plays boardgames together after dinner and read books aloud. Take family vacations to interesting, educational, fun places. I used to be horribly critical of over-scheduled kids deprived of the free-play time necessary to build imagination and independence. My children would never be like those poor kids who spend every waking hour in organized activities. We used to be the sort of family I envisioned. It worked for me. Then my second child came along. We held it together for a while, but my second child is a force of nature. She’s sweet, loving, caring, helpful, curious, brilliant, and probably the most fiercely driven person I’ve ever known. On an off day she possesses the energy of three children.
Before she was two years old she was asking for tap lessons. Every day. For a year. Every. Single. Day. Let’s be clear– no one, absolutely no one– in their right mind teaches tap to two year olds. She started out in combo classes– ballet, tap, gymnastics. She moved up to tap, jazz, ballet combos. In the middle of class, when the teacher would pull out the box of pompoms and scarves and wands and let the kids dance around the room, my three year old would have none of it. She’d stand in the corner and watch (refusing to take a pompom even when other children tried to thrust them in her hand) or she’d do cartwheels while she waited to get back to “real” dance class. She was not there to play, she was there to learn.
So here we are, 6 years later. She is currently taking 11 dance classes a week. 12 and a quarter hours at three different studios. Most weekends my husband drives three hours each way (more now– snow makes crossing the mountains fun) for her to work with her very most favorite dance teacher who moved a year and a half ago. That’s another 2.5-3 hours of dance. This time of year– dance season– there are also weekend conventions and intensives with competition and classes. Generally these start Friday evening and end late Sunday afternoon. Before Christmas, Saturdays were filled with Nutcracker rehearsals and in a couple months they will again be filled with ballet rehearsals, this time for the spring performance.
This is patently absurd. It takes entirely too much time. It puts too much of a strain on the rest of the family. She eats dinner at the studio one day a week and has dinner after the rest of the family, when she gets home, another. The closest studio is a 15 minute drive (on a good day) and the farthest is 45 minutes (40 on a really good day). My youngest’s naps have to be carefully coordinated with the dance schedule and my oldest watches her younger sister get umpteen times the extracurriculars she gets. Ridiculous. Except that she loves it. And I don’t mean she loves it the way my oldest loves music. I mean, it is her passion, her driving force, her sense of self. She is a dancer. Thoroughly, utterly, completely.
Last summer she went to a two week dance intensive– classes 6-8 hours, 6 days a week. It was for ages 11 and up. She was 8. Since then, she has spent exactly $3.75 to replace a hair accessory she lost and needs for dance. Every other penny she has gotten– all her birthday money from grandparents, allowance, Christmas gifts, every penny– has gone into her savings to go back to that intensive. We go someplace, her sister brings money and picks out a trinket to buy and she’ll pick something out. She’ll walk around with it in her hand. She’ll talk about why she’s going to get it, what she’s going to do with it, how much she likes it– and every single time she puts it back and says she’d rather have dance.
When she was five, she had a dance competition that conflicted with her best friend’s birthday party. She missed the party. Same thing the next year. By the third year, best friend had stopped inviting her. She misses her friend, but she still says she wouldn’t change the choice she made.
But it’s not how I want to parent. This past June we went on our first vacation as a family of five– to Nationals for dance. Our youngest had been home 4 months. The following month my husband was gone for two weeks, taking middle child to the summer dance intensive. Gone for two weeks, five months into bonding with a child dealing with post-institutionalization and trying to learn what family is– as we struggled to let her know that family is forever. Only an adoptive parent will truly understand how hard that was for both of them.
It’s not what I want, but parenting isn’t about me. On multiple occasions one or both of us has sat down with our oldest and discussed it– how much dance costs all of us (in terms of time, energy, finances, focus…) and every time our oldest has said we can’t stop because, while it isn’t fair to her or to the rest of the family, it wouldn’t be right to take it away from her sister. (My oldest rocks, too, in case you couldn’t tell.) So here we are. Trying to strike some sort of balance that allows the child to pursue her dreams and reach her full potential and be who she is, while also maintaining some semblance of normal life.
For my oldest, structured activities after school every day would be over-scheduled. And performing a solo on stage in a crowded hotel ballroom would be a pretty severe punishment (this is generational progress as it would be torture for me). But she loves to watch her sister perform and she’s a big fan of hotel pools. For my youngest, dance is a part of her sense of family and when her beloved Jie Jie (big sister) practices she must also have a jazz, ballet, or tap shoe on so she can dance with her.
I can’t be the parent I wanted to be because that’s not the parent my child needs. Sucks for me sometimes. Forces me to work harder to find the rituals that sustain a sense of family and make all my kids feel connected, loved, valued. Forces both my husband and I to push past our innate homebodiness and deal with hotels, crowded ballrooms, and way more car time than any of us would like. Forced my husband to learn to do a bun that can stay in place through 8 hours of dance. Forces me to redefine my concept of what being a good parent means. Forces me to let go of stereotypes, rash judgements, and pop psychology and look at the specifics of the individuals in question.