A round of “busy-mom poker” led to Joanne Kraft's wild idea.
You know the game, the one with verbal banter that sounds something like this: “I have to be at three soccer practices tomorrow afternoon.”
Then another mom ups the ante: “I'll see your three soccer practices and raise you choir lessons and three dozen cupcakes for a bake sale the next day.”
Kraft and her friend Kim Vaccaro had just such a conversation one New Year's Eve while their husbands watched a game in another room and their eight children - each family has four kids - played downstairs.
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At the time, about four hours of Kraft's daily life was devoted to shuttling children to and from school, soccer practice, voice lessons, baseball practice and games, all after a long day at work as a police dispatcher. Dinner involved lobbing shinguards and cheeseburgers into the back seat.
“I felt like a Third World taxi driver,” she joked.
So when Kraft and Vaccaro mused about what life would be like if their families took a year off from everything apart from school, Kraft was ready to make the leap. So was her husband.
The Kraft kids? Well, they didn't anticipate what they were in for.
Meghan Kraft, who was playing soccer, taking singing lessons and participating in community theater at the time, thought her parents were just going through a phase.
“I didn't think they were serious,” she said. “I thought it was something that would just fade out.”
But ol' Mom and Dad were serious. Any activity that required Joanne Kraft's driving services was off-limits for the entirety of 2007, with the exception of school and on-campus sports.
It was, as Kraft calls it, a radical sabbatical.
And it revolutionized the Cameron Park family. Now Kraft has penned a book chronicling the adventure, Just Too Busy: How To Take Your Family On a Radical Sabbatical (Beacon Hill Press, $14.99) and hopes the lessons will inspire other families.
In addition to the activity timeout, the family went on monthly field trips, with the children taking turns picking the destination. The first few field trips were packed with activities — ice skating, a matinee, a picnic — all in one day. By later in the year, simpler was better: a day spent lounging in pajamas while reading books and watching movies. Together.
It's been four years since the sabbatical, but the memories have become some of the fondest for the Krafts and their kids.
“I look back on it as a sweet time with my family,” said 19-year-old Meghan, who was 15 when the sabbatical began.
David, now 16, dramatically improved his grades that year. He learned “that I could survive a year without sports and have fun with the family once in a while.”
Grace missed soccer but acknowledged that “it got us all closer together.”
The following year brought another sabbatical, though this one by happenstance - no TV.
Joanne Kraft had been moving furniture, and Paul didn't have time to immediately reconnect the cable. A few weeks passed, and while Kraft was envisioning her reunion with Paula Deen, it was her eldest son who questioned reconnecting the TV, saying that it was nicer without it.
It's been nearly three years since the family has had network television in their home. Netflix movies are watched together on a TV that lacks cable. They'll occasionally catch a show on the computer via Hulu or ABC.com.
“I've gotten pretty used to it,” said Samuel, 10.
“As in you like it, or as in ‘I've eaten gruel every day for 10 years, so I'm OK with gruel'?” Paul Kraft asked his son.
“The gruel,” Samuel said, with a sheepish grin.
In the years since the sabbatical, they've added activities back to the schedule, but in measured doses.
“We didn't sign them up for stuff they weren't really into,” Joanne Kraft said. “What we should be doing is raising responsible adults, not acting as our children's social directors.”
The sabbatical approach worked for the Krafts, but it might not for work for everyone. Start small, even just setting a goal of eating dinner at the family table a few nights a week.