My 6-year-old son, Dashiell, climbs into my bed every morning and asks, "Is it a school day?" On Saturdays, I get to tell him no. He cheers, but my heart is racing. The truth is, Saturdays make me tense. They are supposed to be relaxed, easygoing, "who wants more pancakes?" days. But instead, by 11:30 the boys have been to both tae kwan do and soccer practice; I've bought and wrapped presents for back-to-back birthdays; Dash is begging for TV time; Conrad, our 8-year-old, is pouting because no one wants to play Pokémon with him; and my husband, David, and I have given each other the stink eye over who is going to Home Depot and who has to manage the birthday-party car pool (guess how that turned out).
It's not Saturday. It's Sadderday, the day when all of our personal agendas crash like trains arriving at the same time on the same platform. How does something that's supposed to be so good go so bad? "The day is loaded with expectations. Everything -- from chores to sports tournaments to time to unwind -- is on the schedule," says Scott Haltzman, M.D., clinical assistant professor of human behavior at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happy Families. There had to be a better way. So to nip the whole Sadderday Syndrome in the bud, I decided to explore the predicament for my own family's well-being -- and maybe for your family's as well.
Can you guess my favorite night of the weekend? Around nine o'clock, when the boys are tucked in and the free time seems to stretch out before us like a view of the ocean, David and I snuggle on the couch with beer and popcorn and catch up on missed episodes of Grimm. The later it gets, the guiltier we feel, but we simply can't stop. We'll look at each other sheepishly as the credits roll, wondering how tired we'll be if we watch just one more. The show takes place in Portland, Oregon, but we are transported back to San Francisco, where we first met and our weekends allowed us all the time we wanted to sleep, eat brunch, and make love.
Our Friday dates are romantic, but suddenly it's 5:30 Saturday morning, and Dash is crawling into our bed, asking for pancakes. I try to buy time, but within a half hour I'm awake, mad at myself for thinking I can be both a night owl and an early bird. I find myself scolding more than I do on a rushed weekday morning, and I feel guilty when my patience wears thin after Dash insists on breaking eggs and misses the bowl. "It's natural for you to long to have your old life back when your kids finally show some signs of independence," says Peter Schaeffer, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City. But as long as our kids are still getting up at dawn, we need to strike a compromise between the parents we want to be in the morning and the fun-loving grown-ups we long to be at night.
So, I cooked up the Two Bad for Us rule: We would make sure the boys went to bed at 8:30 and we'd watch just two episodes, have two drinks, and then turn in. When the next Friday rolled around, our party was over at 11 but it was just as much fun. True, Dash woke me up with the sunrise asking to break some eggs, and yes, I was still sleepy, but I was ready to start cooking.
I was at a soccer game one Saturday, and my friend Sheldon and I were comparing how many times we'd drive across town that day. I was going to make 11 trips shuttling the boys to their events. He beat me with 16, but he has three kids. "Why don't we just say no?" he asked. "Because nobody wants to be left out," I said, but something inside me said that wasn't the whole story.
It's true that most kids don't want to be on the sidelines of socializing, but as parents we don't seem to teach them that saying "yes" to every party and activity has a downside. I had learned this the hard way the previous Saturday at 3:45 when Dash was playing with the kids on our block and I called him in to get ready for a party. To my surprise, he pitched a fit right in the middle of our driveway. He yelled that he didn't want to go, he was tired, and he didn't like the birthday boy anyway. I asked him if he was hungry. He said no and stomped off, only to come back and say to me, "Mommy, I am just hungry for home."
I realized there was no use in dragging him to the Little Gym, so I did the only polite thing I could think to do: I texted an excuse to the hostess. "Lying to get out of a commitment is a wake-up call that you're overbooked," says Parents advisor William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Program at the University of Minnesota. His advice to me: Stop treating your kids like customers. You want to provide them with endless events to make them happy. Instead, choose what is most important and what you (and the kids) truly want to do. "How do I do that?" I ask. "You just ask them which parties and activities they really want to be a part of," says Dr. Doherty, author of Take Back Your Kids.
That weekend, we talked to the boys about how they wanted to spend the next few Saturdays. We discovered that we were able to cut a few events off our list in favor of things they'd prefer to do, like play Pok?mon. I made sure Dash understood his options (birthday party No. 2 vs. time with Dad at the park) so he knew that he had to choose. I realized that I'd underestimated how much he cared about having time to himself; he picked thoughtfully and didn't second-guess his choices. Turning down invites wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, either. Maybe having fewer kids at your party induces as much of a sigh of relief for parents as having fewer parties to go to.
Overscheduled Saturdays feel like a time grind yet, paradoxically, my family has seemed to be just as stressed on the rare occasions when we've had nothing to do. While catching up on laundry and listening to the boys start to provoke each other, I always get a panicked thought: "It's noon and we don't have any plans." The next thing I know, I'm texting another family to come over for a "casual get-together" that pushes our family right back into the cycle of running errands, tidying the house, and negotiating sleepovers. Everyone is suddenly busy and overwhelmed. It's as if we're all addicted to being overscheduled.
We probably are. "The brain gets used to a lot of stimulation, and when you are faced with having nothing to do, you get anxious. The panic you feel is the fear of withdrawal from your overscheduled lifestyle, and a kid's brain is even more susceptible to this than an adult's," says Dr. Doherty. That explains my boys' frantic provoking of squabbles and sudden neediness that seems to get turned on like a switch when we have nothing but free play.
Families like ours need unstructured time to deprogram our addiction to the "what's next?" weekend mode. So Dr. Doherty suggests creating small chunks of unscheduled time during the weekend to help us detox. The hard part: You don't have to commit to the do-nothing time as much as you would to a party or a soccer game. Seeing our weekend mapped out with both full and empty time pockets helped us relax. In fact, it was like the Saturday of my dreams: The kids were in the backyard with a neighbor, David was puttering in the garage, and I was reading on a chaise in the garden. The boys found a kite and tried to fly it for a while, when the wind finally picked up. Suddenly, Saturday felt like a breeze.
Weekdays have their own hectic pace. They start with hustling your kids to the bus and end with a lightning round of dinner, homework, bath, and, finally, bedtime. But expectations are a lot lower; merely getting through the day can leave everyone feeling good about themselves. Therefore, why not add another chore to an already overloaded Tuesday rather than sullying a precious weekend with a trip to the big-box store. Consider doing a grocery run while the kids are asleep, or tackling a cleaning project that you might normally put aside for Saturday.
In addition to getting some chores off your plate, make an effort to spend time together throughout the week to take the pressure off having all your quality time on the weekend. Having a family dinner more than once or twice a week becomes your connective tissue. "If you get home late, try having a family snack or a group storytime. The goal is for everyone to come together on a regular basis," says Dr. Doherty.
I slowly began to implement all these changes and stopped pinning all my hopes and dreams on just one day. It was better to spread the imperfection and share the joy instead of shooting for an idealized vision of that 24-hour period each week when my family could shine. My once Sadderdays were getting happier by the minute. Now it's on to tackling Sundays!