The movie credits start rolling. It’s 30 minutes past their bedtime, so I tell the kids to get ready for bed quickly. I give them 10 minutes to get in bed, and then I’ll sing them each a song. I even simplify what “getting ready” entails by requiring only going potty and brushing teeth. They can sleep in their clothes if they want, and let the cavities grow between their teeth where only floss can reach. I finally feel a “good mommy” high, and I don’t want anything to spoil it. We just sat cuddled on the couch with pizza and popcorn, and watched the latest animated flick. I want these precious memories to be the only thing running through our minds as we drift off to sleep.
Now any of you out there who are parents of young children, or ever have been and haven’t yet blocked that reality out of your memory, probably know what happens next. Child #1 decides it takes 40 minutes to go to the bathroom, you know because she “had to poop,” and “No, she’s not finished yet.” This process by the way looks a lot like day dreaming and playing as much as one physically can play while sitting on the toilet. While I’m trying to remain patient with the marathon bathroomer, Child #2 is upstairs “getting ready.” I decide to check on Child #2’s progress. Should be done and waiting angelically in bed to be tucked in and sung to by now. Of course, I actually find him sitting on the bathroom floor playing with one of the bath toys. As I get closer to the doorway, I can see that the counter is flooded with water and the mirror (that I just cleaned today) is covered in wet, swirled, hand prints.
“What. Are. You. Dooooing?!” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Have you gone potty?”
“Have you brushed your teeth?”
“I don’t know. I’ll do it right now.”
“Where is your toothbrush?”
To this he points. My gaze follows the direction of his pointing finger. Then I see it. Ah, yes, of course, in the Q-Tip jar. Why wouldn’t someone put their toothbrush…loaded with toothpaste…in the Q-Tip jar?! My fingers massage my temples. Needless to say, neither of them earned their song, and both went to bed in tears.
I retreated to the couch and sunk down completely deflated. The evening felt totally spoiled. The bedtime fiasco somehow felt like it had canceled out all of the positives from the evening. Surely they would only remember the negative feelings from the very end of the night. As I sat there angry, sad, and demoralized I started to realize how crazy it was for me to believe that everything would always go perfectly, and that good experiences are pointless if they are punctuated with challenges. The more I reflected on the evening, and on motherhood in general, the more I realized that my expectations were keeping me from fully experiencing joy and contentment as a mom.
It’s everywhere, bombarding us everyday; the message that we’re not enjoying our children enough, that we’re not cherishing them enough. It may be a well-meaning empty nester at the grocery store reminding us to enjoy every moment because they grow up so fast. How about all of the catchy little signs and poems on Pinterest about how babies don’t keep, and how we should play more and clean less. I don’t know about you, but often instead of feeling inspired by these statements, I feel panicky and frantic. “I’m missing it!” “Did I enjoy this last year enough?” “I wish I had done XYZ better, and now I can’t get the time back!” I make resolute goals to be present in the moment and to enjoy my precious babies as much as possible each and every day. I carry weighty burdens of regret for childhood moments lost in the past of this fast track called life. And as I sat there on the couch wallowing in regret once again, it hit me – I haven’t missed it. I’ve been there everyday. It’s just that those days didn’t look how I thought they’d look, or how I thought they should look. Instead, they looked like real life, and the reality of “real life” left me wanting a do-over. Maybe on a second time around things would turn out the way I expected them to. Nope, they never would. Why? Because my children aren’t a photoshopped picture in a magazine; they are real, mini-human beings. And I’m not super mom, I’m just the best mom I can be, which unfortunately is a mom who is cranky sometimes, and who doesn’t get half her to-do list done most days, and who is too tired and overwhelmed to want to play Connect Four right now.
I feel like I’m failing or that another year has zipped on by, and I didn’t do half of the things I had intended to do. The truth is, I did do a lot of things I intended, they just didn’t play out the way I thought they would. All that fun I thought we’d have making cupcakes… they lost interest after cracking one egg and stirring the bowl three times. Mom ended up making the cupcakes alone while the kids scampered off to play. How about that first trip to the zoo? I was so excited to see their reaction to the lions and giraffes. Of course, the lions were sleeping where we couldn’t see them, and the kids couldn’t care less about the other animals I thought they’d love. “Look! A polar bear!” I’d say. They barely gave a sideways glance before focusing their attention on the giant rainbow lollipop they just had to have. Sticky hands, face, hair, legs, and stroller combined with heat, humidity, and exhausted, sweaty parents made the day feel like an epic failure. I’d thought we’d all leave smiling and refreshed from our day out, not all in desperate need of a nap and a bath! We accomplished the family trip to the zoo, but since it didn’t go how I had expected, it’s almost like it didn’t count. It’s still on the mental checklist until we “get it right”. No wonder I feel like I’m not doing all the things I want to do with my kids while they’re little!
It doesn’t matter what we do, or where we go, things rarely turn out the way I envision they will. Instead they turn out alarmingly…real. I don’t need a do-over, or to wallow in regret. What I need is to learn to release my expectations, and embrace reality. Reality doesn’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy and completely satisfied all the time. Reality is potty training, messes, germs, disciplining the same behavior over and over, and never getting through a day without someone ending up in tears over some silly thing. Reality is that if I look back at what I was juggling in life with my health and the everyday trials of mothering, I see that I really did do my best, and enjoy the years that have passed as much as I possibly could. It’s not that my priorities were out of whack, or that the experiences we had weren’t valuable to their childhood. I just need to take off the glasses of unfulfilled expectations of perfection that I’ve been viewing everything through, and give myself and my kids a little grace.
Looking back through the year’s photos, I realized that snapshots of our life made it look pretty idyllic. If I just posted all of these to Facebook, it certainly looks like we’re living the fairy tale life and loving our cupcake making and trips to the zoo. One smiling photo doesn’t capture the full experience though – the good with the bad and the ugly. What I’m saying is don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone is doing it better than you just because their Facebook albums look so perfect. You’re not failing. You’ve just found yourself in the midst of a real life. A real life that is uniquely yours and your family’s, and that doesn’t look exactly like anyone else’s. How cool is that?
Feeling regret about the past can only make it more difficult for us to be truly present and joyful in our current stage of life. Each stage has its joys and challenges. Life is a balance. Part of that balance is the business of life like cleaning and grocery shopping and cooking dinner. Moms know death and taxes are not the only certain things in life; add never ending laundry and dishes to that list! We can’t edit out the mundane, and the time and energy draining aspects of life, and somehow spend every waking hour truly enjoying playing with our kids. Perpetuating the idea that such a reality exists is a huge disservice to moms everywhere. The true reality is that we juggle and we work for balance the best we can, and some days are better than others. It’s normal and ok to get a little misty-eyed when remembering our favorite moments from past stages. I do miss rocking my babies, but I’m also happy to have moved on from dirty diapers and sleepless nights. I love how much more independent my kids are at this stage. It actually makes them more fun! I don’t need to pine for the past. I can move forward with each new stage and enjoy it’s highs, and be happy when its lows pass as time moves forward. I can also realize that those good intentioned empty nesters are simply remembering the sweet, misty-eyed moments, and making friendly conversation by eluding to all of the joys hidden in the messiness of mothering. They are simply offering a loving reminder that while this journey is fraught with trials, when it’s all said and done we can look back with a heart full of imperfect, yet precious memories.
I’m sure I’ll never be perfect at letting go of all mommy guilt and anxiety. That’s just another expectation of perfection that I need to relinquish. But I can keep on reminding myself when I get caught in the trap that it’s unrealistic expectations that really have me down. I can remember to look for the beauty in reality and learn to enjoy this journey despite its flaws. Flaws don’t make it a failure, they just make it authentic.
Remember my family’s “ruined” movie night? The next morning I heard my kids talking about how great our pizza and movie night was. No mention of going to bed in tears. Oh, and they ask to go to zoo all the time because they love it so much. See, they really are making great memories! The trials don’t nullify the good. Perfection may be easily ruined, but this real, messy life of ours is beautiful in its authenticity. No regrets. Just grace.