Searching for the Sabbath

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"Mom - when are we going to have time to do nothing?" My eight-year old son Andrew recently asked this question after we'd been going non-stop for the past 48 hours. Andrew, who loves to read, play Legos, and just goof off with his siblings, was suffering from down-time withdrawal.

He wasn't alone. After a two week end-of-summer vacation where I had time to do things like read and relax with the family, I had been dreading the start of the school year. In particular, I was worried how I'd manage the after-school insanity: the period from 3pm to 8pm in which I morph into a superhuman capable of simultaneously transporting my progeny to various locations across Westchester while feeding them snacks and responding to questions about homework and social life.

Sabbath photo via shutterstock

My kids are not even all that overscheduled compared to most of their peers. Each child is basically only doing one sport each season. But each of these sports meets at least three times a week. It just takes some basic math to figure out what that means for the whole family: Three children, each doing one sport that meets 3x per week, means nine different time commitments per week (plus a small number of additional after school activities including play-dates), which leaves us with an average of two different after school commitments each day (plus additional time required for transportation, gearing up, etc).

Figuring out the after-school schedule feels like one of those awful word problems:

If Emilie needs to be at martial arts in Eastchester by 4:40 and there is a 12.5% probability of 5-10 minutes of traffic delays on the Hutchinson Parkway and Andrew needs to arrive 25 minutes early at the Ice Hutch to put on his gear for his 5:05 hockey practice, what is the expected average number of minutes that crazy mommy will be late taking Austin to his football practice at Glover Field?

The net result is that we're only two weeks into the school year and I already see symptoms of burn-out in my kids and myself. I do not want to complain. I think sports are incredibly important for kids' health and character development, and I feel lucky to be able to give them these athletic opportunities. But what we all need is regularly scheduled downtime. We need a sabbath.

Child psychologist and Jewish author Wendy Mogul writes beautifully about the importance of establishing a day of rest in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee:

There are peak spiritual moments that happen in a family spontaneously. The prescient, poetic observations our children make, the questions they ask as they are climbing out of the bath or playing with their toast, cannot be pumped out of them or choreographed....But the idea of guarding the Sabbath teaches us to increase the odds that we'll find ourselves in these moments, that they will be prolonged rather than fleeting, and that we don't have to leave them entirely to chance.

Mogul goes on to describe how she managed, over time, to carve out Friday nights and Saturdays as restful time for her family to be together.

I have had similar conversations about the Sabbath with women from my church. In particular, I've heard many of the older women reminisce about how Sundays used to be reserved exclusively for worship. In the past no one would have dreamed of scheduling sporting events on Sundays, particularly not on Sunday mornings.

Well of course, times have changed, and folks have realized that loading up all the sporting activities on Saturdays ended up excluding Jews who wished to keep their Sabbath.  Now, sports are much more inclusive: they are equally inconvenient for people of all faiths.

So how exactly should I go about establishing a Sabbath time for my family? I have four thoughts on this:

1. Set realistic goals

Given the fact that each of my three children is doing a different sport, the chances are good that if we picked one particular day each week to be our 'day of rest', we'd end up penalizing one child's sport over the others, which hardly seems fair.  For our family, it may not be realistic to find an entire day every week that can be entirely activity free. But perhaps we can find an evening, or a half-day once every two to three weeks.

2. Cherish days off from school

This week the kids have two days off from school because of Rosh Hashanah. In the past I might have just let this time get filled up with play-dates and errands. But this time I realized that I should at least reserve one of these days to be just for the family. Even if the parents still have to work, just giving the kids some downtime not in a clinic or 'day off from school camp' can be a gift.

3.  Call for 'Family Time' nights to be both homework and activities free

Around the country, school districts are trying to foster downtime by instituting homework-free nights where families are supposed to have more quality time together. However, the last Family Time night I had last spring, we still didn't eat together because I was shuttling kids to various sports practices. If we are serious about fostering family-together time, then all the after-school demands on children's time need to be suspended, not just homework.

4. Religious institutions need to make sure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Given how busy the kids are throughout the week, by Sunday mornings the last thing they want is to go to anything that has the word 'school' in it. Ironically, although attending church on Sunday mornings is supposed to be the way our Christian family celebrates the Sabbath, in fact, we don't actually spend any quality time together in church. We rush around in the morning getting dressed in our church clothes, then we sit quietly (ish) during the beginning of the service, then the kids go off to Sunday school while my husband and I stay and worship, then we separately talk to our friends for a bit at coffee hour and then it's time for whatever sport activity we have to go to in the afternoon. This hardly seems like a chance to create restful space for 'peak spiritual moments' with the kids.

Don't get me wrong. I strongly believe in giving my children a religious education, and have demonstrated that commitment both through attending church regularly and being a Sunday school teacher. But I also wonder if, given the environment that our children are living in, church needs to consider creating occasional alternative worship models that foster more family togetherness.

Well, that's it for now. I gotta stop writing and get ready to take the kids to sports practice.

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