So I watched the movie Bad Moms last night. I howled with laughter at the ridiculous but somehow accurate portrayal of what it feels and looks like to be a “good” mom in this day and age. The running around from school event to sports practice to grocery store, always just a few minutes late for everything and always feeling like you are falling short of the perfection that you are striving towards. Or, more importantly, failing to create that happy and loving relationship with your kids that is your top priority and the reason you are doing all of this running around and volunteering and packing healthy food and watching ball games to begin with. Because, otherwise, what is the point of it all? But sometimes we lose sight of that original goal and we start working towards perfection in each individual endeavor instead.
Signing up for every volunteer opportunity that we can squeeze into our calendar. Making the best gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, vegan treat that has ever been served at the school bake sale. And printing out cute little labels to adorn the packaging of the treats, just so everyone will know what ingredients you used and can verify its gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, vegan-ness. [I’ve actually done this. If you know me at all, I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine!] Signing your kids up for every extracurricular activity that they are either mildly interested in or that you think would be good for their academic, athletic or emotional development.
I know that I am guilty of this behavior. I see a program at the library or at a local park and I think, “Wow, that sounds so interesting and my kids would really enjoy that topic and look…there is nothing else scheduled on the calendar for that two hour block of time. What luck! I’m going to sign up and they will be so excited!” And then I wonder why my kids aren’t more grateful for all the things that I feel like I’m doing to enrich their lives. But the truth is that these aren’t the things they are looking for from me. All they want is my love and my time and attention. Love is not a question. But time and attention? There’s not a lot of that left after trying to fit in all of the other stuff. And I’m not sure that they feel my love in the same way that it feels to me inside. Sometimes it gets lost in translation. Here are two examples to illustrate my point.
We recently signed up our 8-yr old for an evening chess club at the library. He had expressed an interest in learning to play chess and I thought this would be a great opportunity for him to learn chess and for the two of us to have some bonding time together without the other two boys around. When we showed up to the first club meeting, all of the boys (there were no girls that signed up for the club) paired off with each other and started setting up their chess pieces. Over the course of my son’s first two games against a neighbor of ours, I occasionally leaned forward and casually offered some advice about what options were available to him. He seemed irritated by my interruptions and wanted nothing to do with my sage words of advice. A little bit later, one of the younger boys who had never played chess before found himself without a suitable partner and the librarian asked if any of the parents would be willing to play with him and help him learn how the pieces move around the chess board. Since no one else jumped at the chance, I offered to play against him. My son did not say much to me for the rest of the night. By the time we got to the car afterwards, he was in tears and I could not understand what went wrong. After talking it out with him, I realized that he was expecting to show up to chess club and play against me the whole time. He was upset that this didn’t happen and even more upset that I ended up playing with someone else’s child instead of with him. I was frustrated that I had set aside this time to be with him and do something that I thought he enjoyed and it wasn’t enough to make him happy. (Sometimes it feels like nothing I do is enough.) Later, I realized that all he wanted was me – my time and attention. I would have been better off setting aside some alone time with him at home and playing a game of chess together. But somehow the days and weeks go by without me ever stopping to pull the chess board off the shelf and offer to play with him. In my world, it needs to be scheduled on the calendar if it is going to happen.
Last month, I made several phone calls to get our 7-yr old son accepted into an after-school science club that was meant for older kids because he had recently told us, “I don’t think I’m meant to be a sports guy. I’m really more of a science guy.” I was so excited for him to be involved in this science club and thought it would be such a great opportunity for him. But his reaction to the first few classes was remarkably neutral and not at all what I was expecting. I was disappointed again and felt frustrated that I was trying so hard and not making my kids happy. After a long phone call and some great advice from my sister, I tried a different approach. I searched through all of his at-home science experiment books and tabbed several pages of experiments that seemed manageable and did not require any special ingredients or supplies. When he got home from school that day, I was able to light up his day by spending an hour with him explaining and performing fun science experiments together. This made him so much happier than the school science club ever could.
Maybe this all seems obvious from the outside but it doesn’t stop me from thinking that I need to sign my kids up for everything that comes into my email inbox that is related to their interests.
In the movie, the main character gets tired of trying to do it all and feeling so stressed out and exhausted at the end of each day. So she decides to be a “bad mom” instead. She sleeps in later, no longer prepares breakfast for her middle-school aged kids, no longer does their homework projects for them, stops packing homemade lunches, stops showing up for every PTA meeting, brings in packaged donuts for the bake sale, and generally does what makes her happy instead of what all the other moms think she should be doing. And, because this is a movie and it has a happy ending, both the mom and the kids find that they are happier when she lets loose a little bit and focuses on what makes her and her kids happier.
Now, I’m certainly not advocating a completely hands-off, do whatever you feel like sort of mothering. And I’m not saying that you should never sign your kids up for a sports team or extracurricular activity. But I do think there might be a lesson to be learned here. That maybe it’s okay to cut ourselves a break and “do” less but “be” more.
Or to trust in ourselves and our connection with our children enough to realize that, even though we may not be an expert in outer space exploration or amphibian life cycles, we can still find ways to teach our kids (or learn along with them) instead of feeling like we need to find a workshop or class for them to attend to learn more about the subject.
So, in my own non-movie life, maybe there is some middle ground that I can find for myself and my family where I still support my kids in their interests but I stay focused on what truly makes them happy. The trick at this age is keeping up with their ever-changing interests and knowing when they need more stimulation and interaction and when they just need to chill out and reconnect with you.
And when even my best intentions feel like they are not enough, I will remember this quote:
“Sometimes when we’re beating ourselves up, we need to stop and say to that harassing voice inside – Man, I’m doing the very best I can right now!”
And that is always enough.