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A few weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Audra when our conversation turned to talk of summer. “Soooo, we were going to sign Timothy up for baseball this summer, but I don’t know. We like having our weekends free. And he’s just eight. It can wait a couple of years. Right?” she asked causally. 

I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I don’t think Audra had any idea how complicated that question is. 

Maybe there was an era when Little League Baseball or Mighty Mite football or Pee Wee basketball were just simple childhood pastimes – games that children played in the summer or on weekends. But now kids’ sports are a much, much bigger deal. And the implications of signing your child up for a sport (or not) can be massive. 

What difference does it make?

When Audra causally tossed out the idea of waiting a couple of years, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it might already be too late for their son to play baseball – at least on a serious level. Our youngest son began T-ball at four (a year later than many of his peers), and by seven he was on an all-star team that traveled to compete with other seven-year-olds around the state.

We live in a small town where the talent pool is small, and competition for a position on an all- star team is minimal. But in larger cities, like the one Audra lives in, it can be very difficult for kids to jump in and be competitive when they are already two years behind their peers. 

I’ve seen kids playing T-ball in pull-ups and a young soccer player racing down the field with a binky in his mouth. It was cute. Parents and spectators were delighted, and the kids in each of these scenarios seemed to be having a great time. There was no pressure on these little ones to win or even to understand the game.

But this doesn’t change the fact that an early start is often considered an important factor for a kid’s future in the game. According to Brian Watson of the Finneytown Athletic Association, the earlier kids start playing a sport the better. 

Still, isn’t starting baseball later an option for kids who aren’t interested in highly competitive travel teams?

Maybe. But with more players specializing – starting younger with intense leagues and in many cases private coaching, the structure of kids’ baseball (as well as other sports) has changed dramatically. Often city league baseball just isn’t what it used to be. University of Nebraska researcher David Ogden has said that the high level of play leaves more broad-based organizations, such as Little League and YMCA teams, with “a lot of kids who can’t get the ball over the plate, so the game is less fun and kids drop out.”

So, yes. Children can start playing baseball when they’re older, but they might find themselves playing a watered down version of the game because so many other players have moved on to competitive club teams. As a result, some families find themselves having to choose between highly competitive travel teams and low skill-level city league teams. Unfortunately, the game seems to be missing a happy medium.

Baseball isn’t the only sport or activity that has intensified in this way. A child who begins dance lessons at four is more likely to be selected for a competitive dance troupe than one who starts at 10. A gymnast who begins as a toddler is more likely to progress in the sport than one who begins as a pre-teen. This is simply the reality of youth sports today. Stiffer competition means that parents are looking to give their children every edge – and that edge begins early.

Of course, it isn’t just that kids who start younger are better. It isn’t even necessarily that they have more skill. But the younger a child starts in a sport or activity, the more likely he or she is to gain the attention and admiration of coaches. Coaches look for skill, but many of them also like to work with the same kids year after year and “coach them up” to create their own close-knit, well-oiled winning machine. Sometimes long-term commitment and familiarity trump talent. 

Playing any sport is hard and it’s a huge commitment. The seriousness of youth sports at least partially explains why 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 13. They start too young, play too hard, and in many cases burn out too soon. 

Of course for kids and families who are interested in competitive sports, starting early isn’t the only consideration. Usually being on a high level sports team involves considerable financial cost, as well. Often high level youth players receive private coaching with fees the can be nearly a hundred dollars an hour or more. Then there’s the cost of equipment, club and park fees, and of course, travel. This can add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars per year. The cost of highly competitive sports becomes even more staggering for families with more than one child. 

Naturally, the high price tag of competitive sports contributes to the high pressure. Even the most laid back parents start to feel the need to win when they’ve spent a small fortune for their child to play. The loss is tougher when a family has driven (or flown) several hours, forked over money for a hotel room and meals, and taken time off work in order to compete. 

Yet, while the intensity of youth sports can be overwhelming, not placing your child in a sport could mean missing out on some significant advantages. According to truesport.org, there is a great deal of research to back this up. But really it’s common sense. Sports require discipline, commitment, team work, and the ability to accept victory and defeat gracefully. These are all important life skills that will serve a child well long after he has pitched his last inning or she has lobbed her last volleyball. 

Sports also provide a forum in which kids can naturally exercise, make friends, and what’s most important (or should be), they have a lot of fun. 

It’s hard to overestimate how valuable sports can be in the life of a child. According to the University of Missouri Women’s and Children’s Hospital, the benefits of sports also include higher self-esteem, better grades and lower stress.  

So, youth sports are a must. Right?

Given such strong endorsements, it might seem like involving your child in sports at an early age is a no-brainer. But, as with most parenting decisions, there are several factors to consider – especially now that sports have become highly competitive and are a much bigger time and financial commitment than they were a generation ago. 

When it comes to kids and sports, the above benefits make perfect sense – until they don’t. As every parent knows, each child is different. And while the benefits of sports might be numerous they do not necessarily apply to all children. 

For example, sports can be a great way to build self-esteem. A child who is the star pitcher for his baseball team or who wins medal after medal at her swim meets is likely to get a great confidence boost from being in a sport. But the same cannot be said for the child who struggles or who can’t keep up with his or her teammates.

The days of “The Sandlot” are long gone. Remember that movie? When Scottie Smalls moves to a new town he doesn’t know a soul. But he makes friends by playing baseball with a group of neighborhood boys at the nearby sandlot. Scottie is terrible, but the other boys don’t care. They are playing in an abandoned lot, wearing tattered sneakers and using baseballs they’ve scrapped their spare nickels and dimes together to purchase. When Smalls shows up, they are just happy to have another player. 

But kids playing today are wearing expensive cleats and playing at multi-million dollar facilities. They aren’t just looking for somebody else to play. They’re looking to win. Sports are a great self-esteem builder but probably only for kids who consistently contribute to a win. For the Scottie Smalls of the world, team sports can serve as an exercise in frustration and humiliation. 

The MU Health webpage also touts academic benefits as one of the upsides of enrolling kids in sports, reporting that “sports require memorization, repetition and learning — skill sets that are directly relevant to classwork. Also, the determination and goal-setting skills sports require can be transferred to the classrooms.”  

This makes sense. And yet, the article fails to mention that when long weekend tournaments and late night games and practices rob children of precious sleep, the impact on their grades, as well as their mental and social well-being, can be significant.

It isn’t uncommon for 4th and 5th graders to have ballgames on school nights that keep the players out late and deprive them of the recommended amount of sleep for children their age. It can’t be argued that the benefits of sports outweigh the benefits of a good night’s rest, yet families all over the country sacrifice their kids’ sleep for the game on a regular basis. 

As far as sports being a stress reliever, again, that depends. Exercise is an excellent way to burn off energy and relieve tension. But the high stakes nature of many kids’ sports today can add an unhealthy stress component to childhood. Not only do some children feel intense pressure to win and to excel, but the amount of time required to be on a highly competitive team can prevent kids from getting much needed downtime – a crucial factor when it comes to stress relief. 

It’s this downtime that my friend, Audra, is so wisely trying to protect for her family. How do families juggle sports with the need and the desire for a freer schedule and plenty of time to just hang out and be together? How do we encourage our kids to plays sports without ruining childhood?

Balance is key.

It isn’t easy. While my husband and I don’t advocate specialization in just one sport (a practice that is increasingly coming under fire, in part because of the increased chance of injury), we do enforce an off season. Mercifully, off season for all of our children coincided this year. The entire family took the winter off. 

It was glorious. 

We ate dinner together as a family night after night. We were in our pajamas most nights by 7:00. We read books and binged watched entire seasons of “Lost” on Netflix. Most nights the kids were in bed at a reasonable hour — even our two high school daughters who both carried heavy course loads. In short, our winter was relaxing, happy, and sane. Sports are great, but it’s also hard to overestimate the value of quiet evenings at home as a family.

This isn’t to say that an off season is the answer for every family. For some families the balance might lie elsewhere; they might decide against team sports all together. The important thing is realizing that this isn’t 1955 or even 1985. Any decisions parents make about sports will likely have specific and possibly significant consequences for the entire family.

There’s no question that there are very real benefits for children who play sports. There are also very real dangers if sports are taken too seriously. So, what do I tell Audra? 

When (and if) your family is ready, sports are awesome. You will enjoy many hours at the ball field or on the road together. Sports can be a great way to bond as a family and for your child to gain new skills – both on and off the field. So sign him up! Encourage him! Cheer for him!

But whether he plays on a high stakes, competitive team, or he warms the bench for the worst team in the league, don’t forget to have fun!

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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Rachel McAdams didn't talk publicly about her pregnancy or her birth story. There are some things this working mama wants to keep to herself, but the fact that she needs to pump at work isn't one of them.

McAdams was recently doing a photo shoot with photographer Claire Rothstein of Girls Girls Girls magazine when she needed to take a pump break. Wearing Versace and a neck full of diamonds McAdmans did what mamas all over the world do every day, and Rothstein snapped a pic that is now going viral.

In an Instagram post, Rothstein explains that she and McAdams had a "mutual appreciation disagreement about who's idea it was to take this picture," but the photographer says she remembers it being McAdams' idea, "which makes me love her even more."

In her caption of the amazing photograph, Rothstein writes: "Breastfeeding is the most normal thing in the world and I can't for the life of me imagine why or how it is ever frowned upon or scared of."

The photographer added that she wanted to put the image out there to change perceptions about breastfeeding, pumping, and working motherhood.

McAdams decision to normalize pumping through this glamorous image is especially cool when you consider that she's not really a social media person, and spends a lot of days in much less glam attire.

She recently arrived for her first interview since welcoming her son in the spring wearing a grey shirt, baggy pants and sneakers, reportedly telling the interviewer (Helena de Bertodano for The Sunday Times U.K.), "I don't even know what I'm wearing today. The shoes are held together with glue. Isn't that sad? I need to get a life."

"I have clothes on and that's a good thing," McAdams told Bertodano during that chat. Her attire for that newspaper interview was a world away from the clothes she wore for the Girls Girls Girls shoot.

During her Sunday Times interview McAdams declined to discuss her son's name or birthdate.

"I want to keep his life private, even if mine isn't," she explained. "But I'm having more fun being a mum than I've ever had. Everything about it is interesting and exciting and inspiring to me. Even the tough days — there's something delightful about them."

Most of us will never look the way McAdams does in this photo while we're pumping, but we can totally understand that sometimes, motherhood means you're wearing sweats and sometimes it means you're pumping in your work clothes (even if for most of us, that doesn't mean Versace).

McAdams may be keeping some parts of her motherhood experience private, but by showing the world this part of her day, she's normalizing something that desperately needs normalizing.

Some mamas pump, and the world needs to know (and accommodate) that.

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To my children,

It's the New Year, and I have been doing a lot of thinking. I want to say, with all of my heart and all of my soul, that I am sorry. I want apologize for anything (and everything) I have said or done that made you feel less-than or sad or small.

I regret, so deeply, the hurt I delivered through harsh words or sideways glances, for steely eyes you didn't deserve and sarcastic replies you didn't understand. I'm sorry for being upset when I should have been more understanding, for resorting to frustration when I should have found more patience, for pulling away when I should have drawn near.

There were the times when you needed more from me, when you asked for more, and I simply couldn't provide. There were the moments when you wanted less of me, needed less from me, and I couldn't—or perhaps I just wouldn't—back away.

I start every day with a hope, a hope that I will be better than the day before.

Sometimes I succeed, but many times, I fail. Every so often, I fail in spectacular fashion. I think about all the times when I wasn't gentle enough or kind enough or attentive enough to you, about all the moments when I was too quick to anger and not quick enough to forgive.

You don't need me to tell you that I'm not perfect. Lord knows, you know far too well.

But I will say it to you, because I think it helps to hear me say it: I am not perfect. I make mistakes. I am human. I have flaws and cracks and blemishes; they are a part of me, just as they are a part of you.

Sometimes, my dear ones, my mistakes are small—like forgetting to pack your lunch or mixing up the dates for Tot Shabbat, or picking you up an hour late from a play date or accidentally switching your piano primer with your brother's, or sending a snack I know you dislike because I didn't have time to go grocery shopping and have no other food in the refrigerator. But sometimes, they aren't so minor.

Sometimes, my mistakes have to do with the way I've behaved, and the words I have said, and the way I have said them. For those times, and for all the times I failed to support you the way I should, or help you in the way you deserve, and love you in the best way I can, I am sorry.

I wish I didn't make so many mistakes. I'm a perfectionist at heart, but when it comes to parenting, there's still so much I haven't mastered. Even after almost a decade of doing this day in and day out, I still feel like a novice in so many regards and as green as I did on day one.

Precious ones, I've come to realize, no matter how hard I try, that I just can't get it right all of the time. I hope you can forgive my failings.

The older I get, the more I realize that life is a jumble of hits and misses. As many times as we try and succeed, we also try and fail. As much as we hope to do right, we often end up doing wrong. It is the story of the human condition—this mix of losses and gains, triumphs and defeats. It's all very messy (think sloppy joes and pancakes dripping with syrup kind of messy), and yet, it's all we know.

My darling ones, I want nothing more than to do right by you and be the best mother I can be for you. I want to love you unconditionally, support you unreservedly, and be present unambiguously.

In the New Year, I resolve to do better for you, to be better with you, and to act as if God is watching. You mean the world to me. You are everything to me. I love you, always and forever.

All my love,

Mommy


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People often say that having a second child doesn't much add to the workload of parenting. There's no steep learning curve: You already know how to make a bottle, install a car seat and when to call the pediatrician. And you're already doing laundry, making lunches and supervising bath time—so throwing a second kid in the tub isn't a big deal.

Except that it is. Having a second child doesn't just mean attaching a second seat to your stroller. Adding a whole new person to your family is more complicated than that, and it's okay to say that it is hard.

A new study out of Australia disputes the popular idea that after making the transition from people to parents, making the jump from one child to two is easy. The researchers found that having a second child puts a lot of pressure on parents' time and their mental health, and mothers bear the brunt of the burden.

When looking at heterosexual couples, the researchers found that before a first child is born both partners feel equal amounts of "time pressure," but once the child is born, that pressure grows, more so for mothers than fathers.

Basically, parents feel psychological stress when they feel they don't have enough time to do all they need to. One baby makes both parents feel more stress, but mom's increase is more than dad's. When a second baby comes, that time pressure doubles for both parents, and since mom already had more than dad, there's now a gulf between them.

The researchers behind this study—Leah Ruppanner, Francisco Perales and Janeen Baxter—say that after a first child is born, a mother's mental health improves, but after a second child, it declines.

Writing for The Conversation, the trio explains:

"Second children intensify mothers' feelings of time pressure. We showed that if mothers did not have such intense time pressures following second children, their mental health would actually improve with motherhood. Fathers get a mental health boost with their first child, but also see their mental health decline with the second child. But, unlike mothers, fathers' mental health plateaus over time. Clearly, fathers aren't facing the same chronic time pressure as mothers over the long-term."

The researchers say that even when mothers reduce their work time, the time pressure is still there and that "mothers cannot shoulder the time demands of children alone."

Adding a second child to the family isn't just a matter of throwing a few more socks in the laundry: It means a schedule that is already stretched is now filling up with twice as many appointments, twice as many school functions. Mothers only have 24 hours in the day, and as much as we wish we could add a couple extra hours per child, we can't.

Time simply can't change to help us, but society can. As the researchers noted, when time pressure is removed, motherhood actually improves mental health.

We love our lives, we love our kids, we love parenting, but there is only so much of our day to go around.

Ruppanner, Perales and Baxter suggest that if society were to help mothers out more, our mental health (and therefore our children's wellbeing as well) would improve even after two or three kids. "Collectivising childcare – for example, through school buses, lunch programs and flexible work policies that allow fathers' involvement – may help improve maternal mental health," the researchers explain, adding that "it is in the national interest to reduce stressors so that mothers, children and families can thrive."

Whether you're talking about Australia or America, that last bit is so true, but this research proves that the myth about second-time parenthood isn't. Even if you already have the skills and the hand-me-downs, having a second child isn't as easy as it is sometimes made out to be.

We can love our children and our lives and still admit when things aren't easy.

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We know life gets a little (okay, a lot) busy around this time of year so if you haven't crossed off everyone on your Christmas list just yet, here's your reminder that you've still got time. Fortunately, that Amazon Prime membership of yours comes in handy... especially for the holidays.

Here are some of the best last-minute gifts to get on Amazon. Also, that extra couple of dollars for gift wrapping is *so* worth it if it's available. 😉

1. Tape Activity Book

So your little can create just about anywhere—on the go, in the car or hanging out at home.

Melissa & Doug Tape Activity Book, $6.47

BUY

2. Instant Pot

Mama, meet your new best friend. 4.5 stars with nearly 30K reviews.

Instant Pot 8-qt, $89.95

BUY

3. Silicone Teething Mitt

Offer relief to your teething one with a mitt that stays in place.

Itzy Ritzy Silicone Teething Mitt, $8.99

BUY

4. Roomba

Give the gift of never having to manually vacuum again.

iRobot Roomba 690, $279.00

BUY

5. Magnetic Tiles

These are always a favorite for kids of all ages. Build endless possibilities and work on fine motor skills—win-win!

Magnetic Tiles Building Blocks Set, $31.99

BUY

6. DryBar Triple Sec

Perfect addition to mama's stocking, or paired with a salon or blowout gift card. Adds *so* much texture and volume.

DryBar Triple Sec 3-in-1, $35.99

BUY

7. Plush Animated Bunny

Plays peek-a-boo and sings for baby.

Animated Plush Stuffed Animal, $32.97

BUY

8. 23andMe

Learn everything you want to know about your family history, where you came from, and even information about your genetics.

23andMe DNA Test, $67.99

BUY

9. Boon Bath Pipes

Make bath time more fun. They suction to the wall and can be played with individually or altogether in a chain.

Boon Building Bath Pipes, $14.99

BUY

10. HP Sprocket Portable Photo Printer

For printing all of those adorable Instagram moments—and for getting *all* of the photos off your phone.

HP Sprocket Portable Photo Printer, $99.95

BUY

11. Board Blocks

Kids can sort, learn colors and shapes, and work on their hand-eye coordination.

Wooden Educational Geometric Board Block, $6.39

BUY

12. Ring Doorbell + Echo Dot

A great bundle for the techie in your life.

Ring Doorbell 2 and Echo Dot, $169.00

BUY

13. Pai Technology Circuit Conductor

For the little who wants to learn to code, this offers endless learning fun.

Pai Technology Circuit Conductor Learning Kit, $69.99

BUY

14. Kindle Paperwhite, Audible + Headphones Bundle

Bookworms will love this bundle. Enjoy a new Kindle Paperwhite, wireless bluetooth stereo headphones, and 3 month free trial for Audible for new users.

Kindle Paperwhite Bundle, $139.00

BUY

15. Wooden Grocery Store

We love this imaginative play grocery store, complete with a beeping scanner and hand-cranked conveyor belt.

Melissa & Doug Freestanding Wooden Fresh Mart Grocery Store, $179.99

BUY

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work.We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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