After a year of lockdown, when activities for kids were canceled, many parents learned to make do with a simpler life at home. I'm not eager to rush back to the rat race of extracurriculars as life returns to normal and here's why.

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An abstract illustration of a child standing in front of a busy calendar.
Credit: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

The past year has been a roller coaster of emotions and physical exhaustion with Zoom blaring through my house 24/7 and towering stacks of breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes from three kids and a spouse unfairly earmarked just for me. Somewhere during that, I met a neighborhood mom with a daughter similar in age to my youngest. Sadie* has a kid the grade below my 9-year-old, Grace, and they used to take ballet at the same studio.

With her office suddenly closed, Sadie was no longer commuting, so she, her daughter, Grace, and I became a foursome for park afternoons. As seasons blended, I realized something: the pandemic stressors didn't include whether my daughter taking math enrichment might someday make a difference in her life. Sadie agreed. COVID was a huge stressor as people got sick throughout our county, but both our daily mom schedules were strangely uncomplicated.

Eventually, as virus counts started to drop, the ballet studio reopened. School came back part-time, followed by the coding program I was excited for Grace to try. Should we sign up? And what if she was behind after a year of online instruction? Was an education company like Kumon too expensive?

Yes, the possibility of having an overscheduled kid—gone for a year due to lockdowns and only a choice for those with the means for enrichment activities—was back. And if the pandemic showed us anything about creating a purposeful existence, wouldn't it follow that parents may not want to return to the rat race that was raising American kids before March 2020?

I doubt I'm the only parent who used to wonder if all the overscheduling was worth the chaos, as I careened between activities for each kid. I was always worried about cost, but didn't think I could do otherwise, especially as everyone else's offspring already had a "talent" by age 12.

While my kids like being busy, there was no balance in the old life. I think of families whose children played multiple sports back in 2019, or the parent who, pre-pandemic, encouraged his child's acting, resulting in auditions during rush-hour traffic. Or my sister. In the "before times," her son's love of competitive robotics required practices on Sundays—my sister's only day off.

It seems ridiculous looking back and I know I'm not alone in that thinking. "I personally don't miss any of it, the nonstop birthday parties, the classes," says Pam Moore, a mom of two daughters, 6 and 9, in Boulder, Colorado. Moore says new rituals—Friday movies and Saturday night wine with her husband—helped her family get through the last year. "In the pandemic, my kids had time for their imagination, like the night they made their own art gallery to display their art and gave me and my husband docent-like tours. We are being intentional with our time now to make sure these new traditions don't get lost."

What Will Post-COVID Life Look Like?

While parents on the ground try to figure out how to navigate post-COVID parenting, researchers are furiously taking notes. "There will be a lasting effect on how people view everything from marriage to divorce to fertility," notes Wendy Wang, Ph.D., of the Institute for Family Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Dr. Wang's job is to research societal shifts, but she also found herself juggling her child's kindergarten year on Zoom. She says more than a year of global shutdown will leave a gigantic mark on parental behavior, including her own. That's not unusual when looking back at big events like the Great Depression and the 2008 Recession, which did shift family dynamics and trends. While it's not clear exactly what will happen after the pandemic is over, Dr. Wang says, "I hope we'll all slow down."

Still, there's something about the idea of a child with after-school "accomplishments" that college-obsessed, middle-class parents like me just can't quit, leading to the conclusion that some folks won't give up overloading their iCals with kid playdates and practices any time soon.

"I'm seeing extremes," says Amanda Zelechoski, J.D., Ph.D., an associate psychology professor at Valparaiso University who started the Pandemic Parenting nonprofit with fellow psychologist Lindsay Malloy, Ph.D., to track the future of family life and support COVID-stricken parents. "Some parents may not be worried, but others definitely feel their kids missed out on a year of activities and they, as parents, have to make up for this lost time. So their kids will do tons of classes and summer school."

In a survey, Pew Research Center found that even as the pandemic was raging last October, K-12 parents reported being more concerned about access to extracurricular activities than before COVID-19. Juliana Horowitz, Ph.D., associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, says 60 percent of respondents specified kids' social connections were the big concern. Dr. Zelechoski admits she'll send her three sons back to one sport each that they enjoy, although it made her schedule a bit nutty. After all, children do benefit from the friendships and self-esteem created in sports and other extracurriculars.

On a positive note, the pandemic did create an emergency in parenting, especially with no national child care in place. Dr. Zelechoski points out this is the time for both families and government to reexamine how well our systems are actually functioning. "At some point, we shifted from 'parent' being a noun to a verb—that I am doing all these things for my kid," says Dr. Zelechoski. "When research shows, the most important thing is that a kid simply feel safe and loved."

Recently, I caught up with Sadie and her daughter. We haven't seen them quite as much since things got busier. Chilling on her lawn, it hit me: If Sadie hadn't been forcibly parted from corporate life in her skyscraper, we would never have met, though she lives blocks away.

Meanwhile, she wants to take something from this unprecedented year into her next chapter, raising her daughter with an appreciation of simple things, as do I with my own tribe. But she also envisions her daughter back in play production, plus she's planning a summer trip packed with experiences. "I always say I'm not going to schedule so much stuff," Sadie says with a laugh. "But then I do, anyway."

*The name has been changed out of respect for privacy.