Leaving the van behind to go by bike. (Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

Instead of saying, “We’re going to do this thing, wherever it is,” I’m asking, “What beautiful opportunities exist for us right here?”

I’ve been driving a lot lately, and I hate it. The stress-tension has been building in my neck and shoulders, and I feel constantly uncomfortable behind the wheel. I’m taking Ibuprofen and drinking extra coffee to cope with the neck pain and exhaustion from commuting in heavy afternoon traffic. I’m asking myself: “why am I doing this?” 

Extracurricular activities are starting to become more prominent in the older of my five kids’ lives. I’m trying to make up for the pause in activities during Covid because I’m eager for my kids to have a rich variety of experiences and opportunities. I feel a heavy parental burden: my kids will only get to do the things I present for them to do. And if I don’t “start them early,” some doors will close to them forever. I already have a tendency to feel guilty about all of the things we haven’t done.

However, a full extracurricular load is exhausting for all of us — especially when it requires driving. In fact, I think driving is the primary factor for my exhaustion and unhappiness. Driving is isolating and tense, hours of monotony in a metal box surrounded by a sea of asphalt and long lines of other noisy, stinky, motor vehicles. I have to drag younger kids and babies along, keeping them strapped into car seats for hours upon hours of weekly car commutes. We all arrive home at dinner time, hungry, grumpy, and worn out. What kind of a life is that? 

Driving is the expected parental responsibility. For many kid activities, it’s an inescapable requirement. Does that mean we should put our heads down and do it? We live in a car-centric society with heavy driving demands and expectations, and it can be hard to say no, to opt out, to live differently — especially when that means doing less.

But I don’t know if I can sustain a life of daily driving to afternoon activities in peak traffic for the next decade. I know I don’t want to. So I’m setting a new resolution to bring all of our weekly activities into biking and public transit range. 

This is a difficult and sometimes painful goal to strive for, and I’ve already had to turn down some activities or make the switch to a closer option. For instance, I complained to our local recreational soccer organization that they offer players “friend requests” and “coach requests,” but no option for families to make location requests so that a child can be assigned to a practice field based on the bike/ped/transit accessibility.

A happier way to travel.

So I canceled our registration, and we discovered a local group of families that play soccer together twice a week, just for fun, at a nearby church field. It’s free, we can bike, and our whole family can participate together. It’s ideal, but it was a difficult switch for me to make. I played Division I collegiate soccer, spending my youth in very formal, competitive team sports with daily practices and personal training sessions at far-flung fields and gyms, with travel competitions on the weekends that often involved lengthy road trips and hotel stays. Now, here I am, ending my son’s collegiate soccer career at age 9.

As it turns out, though, my sons loved playing in the church family soccer “league” — it turned out to be their favorite activity. I think our entire family life would be better if we made more such changes, bringing all of our outside activities within biking range from home, or simply saying no and finding something else. Maybe we won’t get to pursue some activities, but we can find happy sports and leisure pursuits in our own locale. And getting to bike or walk, or have children transport themselves independently, will give all of us a true breather.

Still, I’m constantly tempted. I’m fighting for my husband and my vision of what we want our family life to look like, and making that vision a reality requires sacrifices and hard choices. I’m not ready to quit everything and go carfree, but I’m definitely trying to move us that direction.

For now though, I’m focused on the activities I add and very deliberately trying to only add the ones that we don’t have to drive to. Instead of saying “We’re going to do this thing, wherever it is,” I’m asking, “What beautiful opportunities exist for us right here?”

Which brings me to my advice to families just beginning their extracurricular activities: Consider mobility when building your family life! Ask yourselves: what do you want your family life to look like in 10 years? Do you want to be driving around for hours after school? How will your mode of transportation affect you and your kids and your community, and how does it align with your values and priorities? Can you begin by choosing activities within biking distance from the very first toddler ballet class?

If you can, consider it now, while they’re young: is the traveling soccer team experience the family life you want? Or do you want something else? If so, you might have to have some guts to make the hard choices to follow it through.

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