skip navigation

One-Thousand Hours and Counting

By Jennifer Riordan Newall, 02/28/17, 11:15AM EST


As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I came upon a friend’s post of her recent family vacation.

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I came upon a friend’s post of her recent family vacation. One after one, I was treated to stunning pictures of misty rainforests taken atop hanging rope bridges, of the kids zip-lining past a volcano and an impossibly neon-green frog. National Geographic-quality images. Every. Single. One.

And then there were all of the photos of the family together… cuddling in a hammock, suntanned faces posing together after a hike, and the mom soaking in a hot spring (after the spa mud wrap and coffee exfoliation.) But these posts are not unusual. As spring break looms near, I can expect more and more of these happy family images to hit my newsfeed.

I have to say that I was a little jealous. I hate to admit it, but I was. How wonderful would it be to go to a place like that as a family, and to give our kids this kind of “once-in-a-lifetime” experience? Now don’t get me wrong, we do get to go on nice vacations – our kids’ favorite is to spend a week at the beach. Not terribly exotic, but convenient, works with our crazy schedules… and only a short three-hour drive away. Go figure.

And then this happened: My daughter came home from school one day and shared that her friend was going to Italy with her family for spring break. But what I heard was, “So-and-so is going to Italy (again!) with her family. Why don’t we ever do anything fun like that? You know, I am going to be in college soon, and then I am going to be working in a different city, and then married with my own kids, and you will never see me again! ” No, she didn’t really say that. But that is kind of what I felt.

So that takes me back to the jealousy part… and maybe a little second-guessing and mom-guilt added in for the heck of it. You see this spring break (just like the four before) will consist of driving seven hours to Atlanta with my two daughters for one of the largest volleyball tournaments in the country. It’s called Big South. And “big” is a misnomer. It is HUGE. Three convention center ballrooms filled with 1500 teams huge – that’s over 15,000 volleyball players!

Now, I love watching all of my kids’ sporting events, so this is certainly not a complaint. I’m also completely aware of how fortunate my kids are to be able to play the sports they love and travel far and wide for competition (and they are routinely reminded of this.) As a former college athlete, sports have always played a central role in my life, and now, my kids’ lives. I’ve traveled up and down the eastern seaboard for my son’s lacrosse tournaments where I’ve lugged tents and coolers onto steaming 102-degree turf fields. I’ve literally spent 14 straight hours in a convention center wedged in between hundreds of courts watching one daughter in the morning and one in the afternoon. This is my family’s normal. But between my son’s college lacrosse schedule and my girls’ club volleyball season which runs from November through June, there is little time for those big National Geographic vacations. And let’s face it, club sports can be expensive. This is a choice and if we wanted it to, that money could certainly go toward one of those bucolic Facebook-worthy holidays. But it makes me wonder, are we doing the right thing? Will we regret it later when the kids are grown and flown and have their own families? Are we missing out on something?

I’m reminded of an article written by a dad about his daughter’s experience playing club volleyball and how it helped her grow both on and off the court. As a volleyball coach and club director, I see firsthand the positive impact team sports can have on a young person. The tremendous physical, emotional, and social benefits of sports participation are well documented. Resiliency, discipline, compassion, respect, and sacrifice are just some of the important life lessons learned through playing team sports. It brings me such joy to watch my kids play and see them interact with their coaches and teammates. In those natural light-devoid convention centers and on boiling turf lacrosse fields, I get to see them struggle, persevere, and grow before my eyes. Giving our kids the opportunity to participate in sports is truly a wonderful gift.

But what we don’t talk about very much is what parents receive from their involvement in their children’s sports activities: Being in the moment with their children. If I tallied up all of the hours my husband and I spent driving to volleyball and lacrosse tournaments (not to mention practices) in the last eight years, I get almost 1,000. That’s quite a bit of intensive togetherness. But the way I look at it, in our over-scheduled, family un-friendly world of racing from one activity to another, where sit-down dinners are a rarity, this time is a gift.

In the quiet communion of those long car rides, we can’t help but be fully present with each other – to talk about things that we may not get to at the dinner table or on the way to the mall. When the kids are bored with snapping their friends and the phone is finally laid to rest, I’ve told stories about my siblings, parents, and grandparents, and what it was like when I was young – by far their favorite topic. (The thought of my kids passing on this oral family history to their own children is at once gratifying and humbling.) We talk about what they want to study in college, where they want to live – who they want to be. We take turns listening to “their” music, and then “my” music, and often find unexpected parity. Sometimes even more serious and philosophical conversations have taken place, where I listened quietly and patiently, and in the end, was given the opportunity to impart some motherly (and occasionally welcomed) advice. I learn something new about my kids every time we embark on one of these trips and our conversations will stay with me always.

So this spring break we won’t be traveling to an exotic locale and zip-lining over a rainforest canopy, but on the bright side, we won’t need to get extra vaccinations or sleep with mosquito netting in a Hampton Inn. I get to be in the moment with my kids for seven hours each way – each other’s captive audience. We talk. We laugh. They sleep. I try to find the nearest Starbucks. There’s no waterfall or volcano in the background as we make our way through South Carolina then Georgia, and a coffee exfoliation spa appointment is not waiting for me on the other end. But we do drive through some pretty parts of the country and when I do finally find that Starbucks, it’s heavenly.