Chaos Theory: The Overscheduled Life of One Family

American parents are feeling pretty overscheduled these days, with the constant round of sports, parties, lessons, and playdates. Are we crazy busy…or just crazy? Here’s how to know when to stop the madness.

Photo by Gail Albert Halaban

With four young boys, Ali Macadam has a few coping strategies. For starters, the organization of her kitchen counter, which looks like a low-tech version of mission control. There’s a row of lunch boxes with a note underneath each that outlines what the corresponding child needs for the day: Sunscreen for a field trip? Check. Water bottle? Permission slip? Change of clothes? Check, check, check.

In the afternoon, as soon as Ali picks up her two-year-old, Graham, from day care and gets home, she preps for chauffeur duty as the rest of her brood—Peter, 11, Owen, 9, and Ford, 7—gets home from school. Backpacks are exchanged for shin guards. Peter and Owen play lacrosse; Ford plays soccer. (Peter also has guitar lessons. And Ford has tutoring once a week.) “I try to drive other kids to the practices so my kids can get a ride home,” says Ali. Some days she drops Peter and two of his teammates off at the field 40 minutes early, circling back for Owen and his friend, dropping them off, and heading home to cook dinner, which is served in two shifts: an early one for Ford and Graham, with hot dogs or other kid-friendly fare; and a later one, when Peter, Owen, and her husband, Chris, wolf down their dinner while Ali bathes the younger boys. Nothing slows down on the weekends, when there’s a packed roster of sports matches mixed with birthday parties, family get-togethers, and sleepovers. Chris, a chiropractor, chauffeurs the weekend games.

Ali wishes that she had more time for certain things. Breathing, for one. She is a certified yoga instructor and teaches when she can. And in 2010 she started a business selling compound butters, but “it’s not going to fly this year,” she says. There’s not much energy left over for friendships, which she misses. While Chris spends part of his weekend playing golf with friends, she would rather decompress alone. “By the end of the day, I’m too tired to do a girls’ night,” she says. “Which makes me a little sad.” And date nights? Every couple of months, if she and Chris are lucky.

“I try to take it one day at a time,” says Ali. “It’s great to have a big family.” She is one of 10 kids herself, and a big family is something that she always wanted. “Eventually I’ll look back on these as the best days of my life,” she says. “But some weeks are overwhelming.”