Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Parenting: The Ultimate Destruction of Perfection

I had 38 weeks of almost perfect mothering.  I didn't scream, yell, or scar my child in any way.  I may not have eaten has healthy as I should have, but other than that I was golden.  I remember thinking about that.  I remember savoring what it felt like to be a perfect mother with a spotless record, knowing it was all going to end because my water had just broken the night before.  The next day, I gave birth and I immediately started making mistakes.  This is what being a parent is really about: giving up any chance of perfection.

As a child, adolescent, and even young adult, I was a bit of a perfectionist.  I only did what I was really good at and if I wasn't fairly sure I wouldn't be pretty good at it, I didn't do it at all. Sometimes, it held me back.  There were things I wanted to learn, but I *knew* that I wouldn't be great at them, so I was too embarrassed to try them too often.  I used to watch the food network and Top Chef and I desperately wanted to learn how to cook, but really cooking stressed me out so I stuck to very simple meals and became very edgy and grumpy when I did try to stretch myself.  If it didn't turn out like the recipe, I panicked and felt incredibly embarrassed.  I only cooked things for people I knew I could cook reasonably well, and when in doubt, I'd suggest we go out or order in.  In college, I majored in something I loved, but also that I knew I could succeed in.  Partly it was because of my passion, partly it was because of my fear of failure.  Before anyone ever came over, I cleaned feverishly.  I agonized over what I would say when I met people or what we would talk about when we spent time together.  (Actually, that was a waste of time because I always felt afterward that I had said all the wrong things, anyway.)  I always wanted a clean slate and to do things right.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that motherhood is the antithesis of all that.  With children, you learn quickly that no one can ever be "on" 24 hours a day.  There is no planning what you can and will say for every situation because children are completely unpredictable.  You can mess up horribly, horrifically, in ways that are sure to lead your children into years of therapy, but you can't even allow yourself an hour to obsess about it because they still need you to take care of them moments later and there is no escaping the mess you just made.  You have to face it and move on, immediately.  Everyday, I feel like I live a thousand books or movies on parenting and about half are tales of triumph and the other half are cautionary tales like "Mother Dearest."  My first year as a mother was demoralizing because I had to let go of any idea that I ever would be "great" or "perfect" again.  Even in my physical body!  I have never had a very attractive appearance ("okay" would probably be my highest rating) and, honestly, I probably have a better chance of getting in shape now than I ever did in the past, but there were features I liked about myself back then, my hair among them and wouldn't you know as soon as I had my first baby, I found I immediately had some gray hair!  And saying/doing the right thing all the time and trying to be the "perfect" mother?  Forget it, I could barely function at all on the ten minutes of sleep it seemed like I was getting at night.  I was so sleep deprived by the time I reached the six month mark that I lost my ability to make short term memories.  People came to visit and we went places with them and less than a year later, I DIDN'T REMEMBER anything about the visit because I had not been able to form any memories I was so sleep deprived.  My quest for perfection had to end and the world actually got a little better when it did.

For one thing, I can cook now.  After having to change my diet dramatically to nurse both of my sons, and having to juggle multiple food allergy issues, I had no choice but to cook.  My meals aren't always glamorous or perfect the first time out, but they have gotten better and, after working through what was a surprisingly short period of mistakes and unimpressive entrees, they have become not only healthier, but actually quite good.  I'll never be a chef-testant, but I am probably a better cook than a great many people out there and my food (even with all its food allergy restrictions) tastes a lot better than what I was eating before.  For another thing, even though I probably mess up more on a lot more important things, I'm much better at letting things go and starting over.  Are there days when I miss those fantastic 38 weeks of mothering perfection?  Sure.  I was an excellent mother before I had kids, full of patience, wisdom, tolerance, and creativity.  But like all perfect things, it wasn't real.  It wasn't tangible.  I could think about it and plan for it, but I couldn't snuggle up with it and kiss away tears with it like I can real motherhood.  So, as much as I might romanticize making a new start to parenting and doing it better this time, I know in my heart that I've done the best I can with who I am every step of the way and that has involved some pretty stomach wrenching mistakes and some serendipitous triumphs.  Everyday, I learn a little better how to embrace them both and lessen the former while enjoying the latter.

I used to dream of accomplishing great things and leaving a legacy that could stand for years.  I was obsessed about it.  Motherhood has taught me to accomplish small things with great love.  My new goal is to try to create ripples of kindness that can echo throughout the lives of my children (and if I'm lucky) their children and maybe their children's children.  Even if no one remembers my name anymore, I hope that I can pour enough imperfect kindness and love into my children so that they will feel empowered to pour their own imperfect kindness and love into the world.

Now, I'm off to make a few hundred more mistakes today. . . and if I'm lucky, a few hundred and one more miraculously good moments.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, April 21, 2014

the gifting dilemna

We love holidays in my household. Any excuse to get together with family for great food, celebrating, and together time is fine by us. Our favorites are Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, all for their own reason. But Easter has its own charm. Its just starting to warm, and the weekend is often spend enjoying some egg hunting outside. What is not to love?

However there is one thing we struggle with a little. Presents. Specifically how to find that balance between not having the holiday be all about what our daughter is going to get, while still treating her a little. Finding the balance of enough, but not too much.

My husband is very much a gifter. He loves finding things that his family and friends will really enjoy and treating them. There is something really special, for both him and the giftee, about opening something that reflects just how well a person knows you and values you. I love that too. I love giving!

BUT I don't want my daughter's biggest associations with these holidays to be getting "stuff," and frankly, she doesn't need anything more anyway! She has plenty of toys, and our house is not large. Plus, we have lots of family that we know she will be getting things from as well. So what do we do?

Well first we reduce: get rid of this idea of quantity being important, and focus on quality. One or two main gifts that we know she's going to adore.

Second, we advise: if we know that certain friends or family will be gifting Gwen we something we will offer gentle guidance. We don't force, and we aren't offended if they buy something else, but we've found that most people who don't have 4 year olds are grateful for a little guidance!

We think beyond toys: Gwen loves getting new clothes, which most people might think would be an unappreciated gift. So we often advise people of what her current sizes are and what gaps her closet has. She loves having fun new items to pick from (superhero anything is a BIG hit right now), and we appreciate not having to break the bank clothing our ever growing girl! We've also had people take Gwen for fun activities instead of gifts, which its been proven provide longer lasting happiness thing things do!

So far we've managed to stick a good balance. Gwen has always been happy and appreciative for what is given to her, without it being the main focus. I hope we can keep this going for all the years to come.

What is your happy medium with gift giving?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slugs and Snails and Duck Down: Remembering what Individuals are Made Of

I try to be a mom who sees her kids as individuals first,  I encourage my sons (and husband) to be demonstrative and open about their emotions.  I am ridiculously protective of gendered stereotypes such as telling a boy he's "brave" or "tough" only when he doesn't cry (I tell them they are brave and tough anytime they face their fears and if they need to cry, cry! It's what humans do!). I was pretty vocal in combatting the "he's all boy" type comments we got when he broke his arm for the second time before Christmas.  I try to give my boys opportunities not just to destroy, but also to build, not just to drive cars, but also to nurture.  They play swords occasionally, but those foam pirate swords can only be used to touch other swords or weapons. They actually play with their play kitchen a bit more often.  I am not trying to raise them in a gender-less environment, but I am trying to help them define their gender as part of the identity they create for themselves and, mostly, to learn about and be themselves first and foremost.  So, imagine my surprise when I realized this morning that I have been in the midst of the silliest kind of gender stereotyping for weeks and had not realized it!

  It began innocently enough.  As spring begins to emerge rather sleepily and sluggishly throughout the Midwest, I decided to try to interest my eldest son in more animal and natural world activities.  His father has been taking him in the yard to help with beginning yardwork and set up the bird feeder his uncle got him for Christmas in front of our living room window so he could watch the birds as they reentered our yard. We've been enthusiastically playing outside, going for walks, and marking the changes in the yard as the new season awakens.  Meanwhile, I decided to try showing him a larger natural world by getting fun videos from the library.  While a decent idea, my selections were ridiculous.  Remembering what my brothers loved when they were young, I checked out dinosaur videos, shark videos, and old crocodile hunter videos.  Week after week, my son was completely uninterested in watching them.  I never "made" him, but I was perplexed as to why he wasn't interested.  This is a child who loves watching Anerica's Castles with me and documentaries on bridge engineering, so surely the content wasn't too boring for him! What was wrong?  Didn't he like nature?

This morning I found out.  Confident he would like Steve Irwin if he only gave him a try (everyone loved Steve Irwin, right? Even my mother who hates snakes, lizards, and anything that crawls with the burning passion of a thousand suns loved Steve Irwin!), I put in an episode of Croc Files.  It was one on marsupials.  My son initially was resistant, but eventually relaxed as the episide continued.  

"Mama, I like this kangaroo and koala part, but please turn it off before we get to the part with crocodiles.  They scare me."   
"They scare you?"
"Yeah, the teeth are scary like sharks and dinosaurs.  I don't like them.  I don't like those kinds of animals with big, scary teeth . . . Like tigers or other scary things."

Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head.  Instead of picking out nature videos that would appeal to my son (the individual who adores birds, especially ducks, and desperately wants to go fishing), I had been wasting my time picking out videos that would appeal to my preconceived idea of what "boys" like (sharks and crocodiles)!  While he probably will want to learn about other creatures someday, a much better choice for first nature documentaries probably would have been dolphins, fish, and ducks!  He is a cautious child and has never shown any interest in predators.  What was I thinking?  I had been so concerned about picking up stuff that "boys" would like, I had forgotten what my son would like.  

We turned off Croc Files since that was the only episide without crocs, and turned on a netflix "Duck-umentary" and my son was enraptured.  At the library, we checked out videos on fish, birds, planets, and constructing domes (my little engineer is particularly keen on that one).  This time, he's excited for the science movies and I'm excited to give him views of the natural world beyond our backyard that won't scare him.

Gender stereotyping can sneak up on you when you least expect it.  As embarrassing as it might be to admit you've made a mistake, apologize and move on quickly.  I hope my son knows that I am seeing him for him again and not just as what I imagined a "boy" to be.  I also hope that my own accidental stereotyping doesn't sneak up on me again for awhile!

Thanks for reading, 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Broken Toe Mothering: How an Unfortunate Accident was Actually Good Fortune in Disguise

I remember the moment like it was yesterday even though it was three weeks ago.  I was rushing around the house and felt completely overwhelmed.  Both boys were crying.  Everywhere I looked was covered with things I needed to put away or clean.  I had dishes to do, a meal to cook, the floor to clean, bathrooms to scrub, a diaper to change, and I was fairly certain my four year old and I had not done a single educational thing together all day.  I felt like screaming and I had been a bossy, grumpy, mama all afternoon.  Then, things got worse.  While vacuuming with my youngest on my back, I took a step forward just as my other son called for me and I stubbed my toe on the vacuum and broke it.  Not the vacuum.  At least one bone in my toe.  I felt the crack and the pain after you've felt it once is undeniable.  This was the last thing I needed.  It was also the exact thing he needed.

You see, I learned something the next day as movement of any kind caused agony.  My problem wasn't the number of things on my to do list or how little I was accomplishing or even that my kids needed more than I could give.  My problem was what I was expecting myself to accomplish and my way of trying to make those accomplishments.  With my toe broken and in pain, I relaxed my expectations for myself because I had to rest my foot.  Imagine my amazement when I discovered that even though I was able to do much less, everything seemed less stressful.  My eldest son, whom I'd been randomly attacking with educational ideas that he would then push away, suddenly began to come to me with educational ideas.  "Let's do puzzles, mama.  Let's do mazes.  Let's build bridges.  Let's build houses.  Let's do tangrams."  It turns out that he was dying to do fun learning activities with me, he just didn't want to do it when I was in a hurry.  Likewise, because I was spending less time running around the house attempting to clean like a mad woman and more time sitting in the living room or playroom with my children, my youngest became a lot less demanding because he had what he wanted, my attention.  Dinner still got cooked every night (although admittedly at the end of cooking more complicated meals where I am on my feet all the time, my toe is killing me).  The clothes still got washed and folded.  Chores still got done, but sometimes things had to be shifted to the next day in order to give my foot time to rest.  Surprisingly, while my house has not gotten cleaner, it hasn't gotten any messier, either.  It turns out that the more time I spend in the room with my boys, the less time they have to make ridiculously huge messes because I'm there helping them to clean as we go instead of there some of the time and then missing while I frantically clean stuff in another area of the room.

I think what I finally realized is that this is a "Broken Toe" period of mothering.  It is a time when expectations of myself, my house, and my life need to get a little more relaxed so that I can appreciate the hard work that is going on.  All mothers of young children are a little handicapped by the circumstance of being mothers of young children.  Young children cannot be independent.  The job of taking care of them is messy and time consuming and it precludes perfection (or even really good work) as a housekeeper. It is also rewarding and time sensitive.  While I will have the rest of my life to scrub dishes, floors, windows, laundry, etc.  (although hopefully in decreasing amounts as the years go on!), I only have a few years to be a mom of young children and when this season ends, it ends. Never to come again.  I can either relax my expectations of what "accomplishment" looks like right now or I can be constantly disappointed when I don't measure up, because my kids' needs are not going to lessen for awhile yet and they will always come first.  They might was well come first with me smiling and watching and (occasionally) resting and healing.  After all, it's better than if they come first because they have to demand it from me when I'm grumbling, preoccupied, and frenzied.

So, lesson learned, Universe.  Now can I please have my toe completely healed in the next week or two?

Thanks for reading,