Once upon a time (about three years ago), I was trapped in what I call the Perfect Parent syndrome.
With one child, it had been easy to be a perfectionist. But as more kids came along and my responsibilities grew, I was soon making a huge deal out of everything: five-course meals every night, home-sewn outfits at Easter, Martha Stewart-quality birthday parties, all while juggling PTA chairmanships, Cub scouting, Sunday School teaching, drill team fund-raising, Christmas lists the size of Montana, not to mention my own teaching career and second job as chauffeur to ballet, band, and basketball.
Whew! I need a nap just remembering. I figured frazzled just went with the territory. The problem was, I knew I could really love this parenting ride, if it weren't for all the excess baggage I'd created.
A serious illness made me realize that the Perfect Parent had to go. I had to jettison the superfluous, to decide what was truly important. With a bit of ruthlessness, I've developed our family's "traveling light" list of essentials, the only things I truly worry about doing well.
Saying "no"; sweetly, politely, but firmly. I finally gave myself permission to say to adults what every child development book says we must do with our young children - let them know our limits. The "just-say-no-with-a-smile" works equally well with telephone salespeople, church social committee chairwomen, and insistent PTA presidents.
Dinner together. I may go all out with the impressive multi-courser, but usually not. Do hot dogs together at my nine-year-old's baseball game count? Of course.
Bicycles in good repair. The standard eighth-year birthday present around here is a tire repair kit. If I lived in the city, it would be a bus pass. Saves thousands of miles of wear and tear on car and Mom.
Reading. Sounds strange but it's the glue that holds our family together. Picture books, classics, Scriptures, mysteries, the newspaper, and the National Geographic - we read individually and we read together. Most importantly, we talk about what we've read. Some of the most stimulating conversations I've ever had were with my children over a book.
Hugs. An essential restorer of good spirits. A good hug is any hug.
Family Night. Monday night belongs to us. We might go for a hike and picnic on a mountaintop, or bake cinnamon rolls and laugh at old home movies. Every week a different family member is in charge. How often can a five-year-old say, "Let's have a massive water fight!" and actually get to do it?
Time Outs. No, not for them - for me. Exercise, reading, and a little quiet time are truly essential if I don't want to be the Wicked Witch of the West by nightfall.
Firsts. I try to slow down and notice the changes, the growth. This is the essence of life. The kittens being born, the first snowfall, the sandwich made "all by myself," the My First Bra. Each get my full, appreciative attention.
Worshiping together. I cherish our once-a-week break from work and the every day to focus as a family on the eternally important. We grow closer to each other and to God, whose help we need in all things. Plus, Sunday is pizza night.
A good joke. Remember the scene in "Steel Magnolias" when Sally Field's rage over her daughter's death dissolved into laughter because her friends did something hilarious at just the right time? We try to operate on the same principle. If we're laughing, we can't get too bummed or too serious. I was thrilled when our youngest's "knock-knock" joke was actually funny. Finally. Now we're all comedians.
Patience. When my daughter really wants the expensive Favorite Animated Heroine Fantasy Castle, it takes patience for her to earn enough money to pay half. And I've had to learn that I can't do and be everything. But being patient with and caring for myself has reaped unexpected benefits. I've found I can give my kids the best - the best of me - energetic, loving, happy.
Everything else can wait until later. Now is my season to love my children to adulthood. And who knows? Maybe I will someday create birthday cake masterpieces to awe my grandchildren. Today, I'm relaxing with my family so that we can all enjoy the ride.