This week I was reminded by Facebook of this post I wrote one year ago. It was about my dread of having my then 13 year old son travel to and from basketball practice on his own after school through a tough part of London. A year later, he is still making that commute to his basketball family, now three times a week plus weekends. Those three days a week father and son share a 12 hour workday, occasionally finding each other on the last leg of their journey home. Independence intertwined with care and common sense (and a little extra cash for food) is like a plow that loosens fear and allows our children to grow.
While grateful for his blooming independence, I’m also thankful that my 11 year old still needs an after school escort. He has regular after school activities twice a week where my services are required.
It used to be that after school activities were a series of curb side pickups and drop offs in a car you always apologised for given that it doubled as a dressing room and mini-mart. In London however, after school activities without a car means multiple backpacks and never leaving home without an Oyster card and umbrella. You have to learn to do “more” in public restrooms and if trainers were forgotten, then loafers it will be. On the plus side, crumbs are no longer your concern.
Shuttling a child to and from activities without the convenience of a car has indeed been more inconvenient, but if truth be told, I’ve found a lot of pluses that extend well beyond crumb avoidance. After a year, we have found a rhythm to these two days that has made them more joy than chore.
First, the snack upgrade. With 20 minutes to kill after school before the boys need to ferry off in different directions, the three of us meet up for a quick snack somewhere near Oxford Circus. The food options are endless with places like Joe & The Juice, Kaffeine, and Gitane (Persian food and today’s stop.) Gone are the days of groaning about a granola bar and apple slices, Also gone are £s.
Second, undivided attention. When it matters most. You often get the unedited version of the day’s events right after school ends, before it’s either forgotten or buried. I’ve found that I’m a much better listener in those precious 20 minutes when I’m not responsible for making the avocado toast or focusing on road and traffic conditions. The bizarrely spotty mobile phone coverage near the kids school has also been a boost to attention.
Third, touch. An 11 year old may be outgrowing hugs and kisses but nothing gets them to nuzzle into you like a crowded Tube or bus after a long day. On one of the days Lawton and I head west on the Bakerloo line from frenetic Oxford Circus to Maida Vale. We typically start our journey standing face to face until the train empties at Paddington Station when he then takes his position either on my lap or with his head on my shoulder. When there are no watchful eyes of friends or siblings around or room to escape to, Mom is your home base. Even in public.
His head finds a similar resting position on the other day of the week when we take a crowded bus 17 stops heading east to Islington. Together we people watch as almost the entire bus ridership turns over as the neighbourhoods change. The transit part may be less about conversation but the physical hip to hip connection has a way of quietly restoring energy for both parent and child. It’s something that doesn’t happen with a front seat/back seat seating arrangement.
Fourth, alignment. Not having a car in a big city naturally forces you to be more selective. And when a little more skin in the game is required, it becomes clearer to both you and your child on what activities they really want to invest in. That clarity of choice helps you muscle through on days when one of you isn't feeling it or you aren’t up for all the humanity. And since my 11 year old isn't likely to become a top college basketball player or rising thespian, it is a relief to take the proverbial pedal off the gas - even when you didn’t really know you were speeding.
Fifth, park time. On both days I can either take the bus to meet the boys near school which takes 15-20 minutes or I can walk through Regent's Park which takes 30 minutes. Nine out of ten times I walk. I'm not even competing with anyone for steps. I walk because green space has a way of elevating your mood even in the rain. Somehow even though that time is in service of my children, the distinction between giving and receiving blurs when I'm under a canopy of trees rather than behind the wheel of a car.
Sixth, bonus me time. On the day I drop Lawton off in Maida Vale for basketball, the lack of good transit options going west to east without heading back into Central London means that my best options for getting home are either Ubering or walking. Nine out of ten times I choose to bundle up for the walk and listen to a podcast. The walk, much of it dark at this time of year, takes me 50 minutes but it’s through beautiful residential neighbourhoods where the quiet leafy streets shush the noise of the bustling city. And because Brett tubes from work to pick up Lawton after practice and they Uber home for their own one on one time, I magically have an hour and a half in a quiet kitchen to make dinner.
Seventh, eating out. Sometimes it's simply not practical to get home after an activity drop off. Instead it's more practical to spend the 90 minutes in a cozy neighborhood pub reading. On the second night our regular schedule involves me doing that at a place in Islington called The Albion where there is always a seat near the roaring fire. After pick up, we then meet up with Brett and Colin somewhere new for a late dinner. Beyond the Kindle time during what is usually cooking time, there is something pretty cool about coming from different parts of the city and seeing your rosy cheeked 14 year old holding the table for your 8:15 dinner reservation.
After school activities can be slog but there are some small rewards that open up when you ditch the car and grab an umbrella.