Patience. It’s hard when you’re a parent.
I don’t just mean when it comes to handling baby blowouts and toddler tantrums, though Lord knows those moments will test most any mom. Practicing patience is the hardest when it comes to the hurdles we wait for our kids to move past, for the milestones we worry they’ll never achieve. Just like being okay with the stage of motherhood we’re in right now is a huge challenge, so is being okay with the stage of childhood our kids are in at this moment.
I thought long and hard about my perspective on developmental leaps and setbacks this week.
In the course of just a few days, we had milestone breakthroughs for both of my daughters—one simple, one monumental:
First, my two and a half-year-old started pooping on the potty. She just walked right into the bathroom, climbed onto the toilet, and an announced, “I’m a big girl! Now I’m ready for preschool.” She had been using the toilet to pee like a champion for a few weeks, earning stickers left and right. Suddenly, though, without any prompting or prodding, she was fully underwear-ready.
No big deal. Simple. Easy.
I’m pretty sure I was way more excited than she was, given I immediately started counting up dollars saved now that I only have to buy enough diapers to cover naps and nighttime sleep.
Next, the monumental event came to pass (I’ll just go ahead and warn you, it’s not going to seem monumental to you at all): my five and a half-year-old looked me straight in the eyes and beamed. Yes, she has smiled before, but this time when she did it she was dancing, leaping across the floor of the school gym with an audience of peers and parents at 9:25 on a Friday morning.
No big deal. Simple. Easy. Right? Wrong.
There was a time I held that same anxious daughter in my arms while she watched all the other kids she knew enjoy soccer or dance or swimming, terrified something horrible would happen to her if she gave it a shot. There was a time I wasn’t sure if her fearfulness would allow her to make it in social or classroom settings. There was a time my worries about her worries completely overwhelmed me. So to see my baby walk confidently in front of a room full of moms and dads and flash me a thumbs up before she pliéd across the floor made me all weepy with pride. It’s not that I care if she dances specifically (actually, long term picking some less perfection-driven passion may serve her better), it’s that I care that she’s beginning to develop some resilience and maturity. She’s growing up.
As I look back at what helped her get so big and brave this week, I’d love to pat myself on the back for perfectly parenting my anxious child up until now. I’m sure my pediatrician-level understanding of the brain and the help of several psychologists along the way helped, but in the end, she did it all on her own.
The biggest lesson I learned this week?
Often times we bang our heads against the wall for months (or years) trying to move our kids in the direction we hope they’ll go but, along with our parenting prowess, leaps in development (and beyond fears) usually happen because our kids’ desires to experience something awesome outweighs the potential risks they perceive in that activity. In short, joy has to overpower trepidation for them to move forward. When they finally take that leap, it reinforces how amazing it can be to take a chance. My incremental work over the past several years to move her past her worries mattered but that it was just the foundation: her own excitement over being a part of this particular class performance is what pushed her over the edge.
Every parent has their own moment when they feel at odds with their kids’ progression through a particular developmental challenge—moments they can’t change because they’re not meant to be changed, they’re meant to be waded through or waited for.
We can worry our way through them, we can internet search our way through them or we can, after checking in with professionals and advisors we trust, just sink into them.
For most modern moms I know, worrying is the default when our kids don’t get to whatever’s next quite fast enough, be it a developmental milestone, a social leap or a move toward independence. Anxiety defines our parenting generation. I’m not sure we can help it—we have a constant influx of information, a steady diet of dissidence on almost every topic (including parenting philosophies), a billion to-dos, and conflicting commitments. We’re stressed, not just about our kids but about our own lives. Sometimes we forget that, even if we’re going a mile a minute, and it feels like our struggles should hurry up and get with the picture, too, they cannot. Some things, especially the most painful things, just take their own sweet time. Worrying about them, although it feels productive, just makes them take even longer to pass.
Nine times out of ten, my “aha” parenting moments have some element of, “I’ll do it differently next time,” but not this one. This one was about letting things happen like they’re supposed to, waiting for the rain to stop pouring down until the sun comes out again. If you’re in a tough spot—either with your kids or with yourself—remember: time makes most things better. After you’ve worried and worked to find a solution, take a second to decide you may have to just get the support you need, take breaks, and wait a little longer.
Confidence begets confidence.
Yesterday, another breakthrough on a cloudless blue sky day. Suddenly, my timid little girl is yelling, “Superspeed mode!” as she careens down the sidewalk on her bike, shedding her hesitation to ride solo from just a few days prior. “I’m building up my stamina, Mama!” she calls back to me, her hair a stream of sunlight as she pumps her little legs and grips the handlebars with all her might, so sure of herself and her newfound strength. My heart is pumping fast, too, as I run to catch up, beating harder from relief and release than from anything else. A million things I’ve held onto, a million things I’ve had no control over, a million things that have to just work themselves out.
Let me remember this next time I’m feeling stuck: growing up, leaps and setbacks and all the mucky stuff in-between. It’s all part of it. Have patience. Don’t rush it, mama.
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Three weeks, two days, seven hours and twenty minutes, but who’s counting? I am. The anticipation is killing us at my house as we painstakingly mark days off on the calendar ’til our next family vacation. Even my two and a half-year-old joins in the “Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaii” car ride chants her older sister spontaneously bursts into on the regular these days. My next dedicated getaway with my family may be almost a month away but, in my mind, I’m already there.
I’m all for finding contentment wherever life finds us, in using mindfulness to appreciate the beauty of right where we are instead of wistfully wasting our lives away on what we’d rather be doing but, sometimes, having a happy place in our minds can actually play a huge role in getting us through the roughest patches we face. I have not one, but three, magical moments seared in my mind that my brain flips to on the regular, especially when my kids are acting up or my day job is making me seriously question my career choice.
In one scene, I’m lying on a yacht along the blue-green water off the Amalfi Coast (I know, it’s a little much—just bear with me here). I can smell fried calamari from seaside cafes and I’m holding a glass of white wine. I am—no joke—lying in a two-piece retro emerald green swimsuit on my back with my pre-baby body and I’m laughing. I’m not laughing like belly laughing. I’m laughing like Beyoncé on her yacht “Oh ha, that’s so amusing” laughing. There’s radio music—classical Italian —and crisp green grapes. The sun is hitting my shoulders and my hair so that I literally look and feel like a goddess.
Now, I’ve been to the Amalfi Coast and I’ve even been on a boat in the Amalfi Coast (a tiny speed boat we rented for $50 an hour with NO grapes and NO wine and definitely NO PRE-BABY BODY), but the odds of me getting back there anytime soon are slim to none. In fact, the trip was a poor financial decision and it took us years to pay down the credit card bill). Still, the romanticized version in my head of what it was like to be there is as real as the sky is blue.
In another, I’m lying in a hammock on the beach in Hawaii (see a theme here)? It’s me and my then 8-month old daughter. We’re giggling and softly swaying as we look up at the blue sky and the palm trees. The sound of ukelele music wafts through the air from our condo, where my husband blends Costco Pina Coladas and plates fish tacos from the local food truck.
For the last one, I’m snuggled in my bed with my husband and my two kids. We took a day off work. School’s out. We’re playing Stevie Wonder on our Bluetooth speaker. The sheets and the covers feel so soft and snuggly. It’s bright outside and peaceful inside. We’ll probably make waffles at some point. We have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. We’re just here, with our people, in our home.
These are my three happy places. Two are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Amalfi Coast on a millionaire’s yacht? That will likely never come to full fruition but it doesn’t matter. It triggers my mind to relax, to slow down, to breathe.
Snuggling up in my bed? That one is fully approachable. I could have a “four peas in a pod” moment most weekends if I made it a priority. It just probably won’t be as prolonged or as peaceful as my mind makes me think it will be. Inevitably, one of my kids will complain that the other one is taking up too much room, the other one will steal half the covers, my husband will realize the waffle maker is broken and World War Three will break out between my kids as we decide over alternatives like pancakes or French toast. Still, it’s a good place to go back to—literally and physically.
See, as much as I try to live my life based on a fundamental belief that I can be content wherever I am—that my perspective is what drives my satisfaction, not my circumstances—sometimes I need to physically remove myself from my day to day (or weekend to weekend) life. My kids? They can come along, too, cause it turns out they need to get out of their ruts and tired routines, too.
The research is clear that vacations matter to our kids—toys and stuff can’t even come close. Plus, getting away—not necessarily to a foreign country or to an island, but to just about anywhere that promotes relaxation, communication, and maybe a little boredom, matters for families, too.
Camping and beach trips are just as good, if not better, than high-stress, multi-plane adventures. Vacations not only allow us to take a step back from the drone of life, they also allow us to explore new places, to make new memories, and to simplify—together. Family vacations are an amazing way to model self-care and to get out of our day-to-day grind.
Now, can vacations also be stressful and annoying? Of course. Don’t plan a super complicated, 5-week adventure with your 3-year-old (if you do and you complain about it to me, I will only say I told you so). Do age-appropriate vacations and plan for what can go wrong, when possible, realizing you won’t be able to control everything all the time.
What About All That Can Go Wrong On a Family Vacation?
For real, though, I hear you saying. What about all the hassles of travel? So much can go right when you travel with babies and young kids—chances for adventure, opportunities to re-connect and to re-charge—but SOOOOO much can go wrong: cranky kids, flight delays, unexpected illness. It can be overwhelming to even start to consider taking your little ones on more than a local jaunt. I’m not about to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a leisure trip if it feels way more stressful than leisurely.
So, is it even worth it to try? Definitely!!
Just make sure you follow these parenting tips on how to keep your troupe safe and sane on your family vacation:
Bring Help Whenever Possible
When we went to Hawaii two years ago with our then eight-month-old baby and three-year-old toddler, we decided to bring our nanny with us. At first, we felt really embarrassed we were planning it that way. It was a little “too rich for our blood,” my husband said. He barely mentioned it to his family when they asked how we were going to juggle both kids, two flights and our desire to actually relax once we got to our island destination.
But, after we came back, he could not contain himself about what a completely different experience we would have had without her. I’m so glad we made the decision to set aside our pride. We did the simple math on affordability and made a choice that worked for us. In the end, it cost us about $500 more on an eight-day trip to have her come along (since we would have been paying for her to care for our kids anyway during that week based on our contract with her).
Last year when we went on a family vacay, we brought grandma # 1 for the first week and grandma #2 for the second. It was an even more cost-effective way to actually meet our trip-away goals.
I can already feel my blood pressure lowering as we arrange the details of our next stay with extra help on the packing list.
Plan Ahead for Illness and Emergencies
Especially when you travel internationally (or to a more remote destination), don’t assume you’ll be able to find the medications or the products you need. Bring ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) when appropriate (plus know your child’s dose). Pack a first aid kit, plus diaper creams and a sunblock you trust. Make sure you remember a thermometer, plus the normal soaps, shampoos, and lotions your child’s body is used to. In my pediatric office. we see countless patients come back from trips with skin irritation and rashes from using hotel-brand products.
Before you go, look into how to access care in case of emergency or in case of mild illness. If you book on sites like Airbnb or VRBO, take advantage of your host’s knowledge of the local area and the local healthcare system.
Get an international phone plan so you can access family or make phone calls for help if necessary. Familiarize yourself with Google Translate so, if you are stuck with a language barrier, you can communicate more effectively.
I tend to overpack. I want to make sure I have all the items I need everywhere I go. The upside? I’m ready for most anything. The downside? Usually, I can hardly find the one item I really need as I sift through all the junk I stuffed into my heavy suitcase. This year, I’ve learned to pare it down and lighten my load. It makes it easier in the car, on the airplane and throughout the airport. The less you lug and the more efficiently you lug it the better.
Pick an Itinerary That Matches Your Kid’s Temperament
It might sound like a good idea to travel around the world with your two-year-old and it very well might be. But if your two-year-old is temperamental (or is just typical), think it through before you buy the tickets. On a smaller scale, we have plenty of discussions in my house before a big trip about how to get from Point A to Point B with the least amount of drama. For every adult-focused activity on our vacations, we plan a kid-focused activity. We know when to call it quits on our itinerary, even if we’ve already bought the museum entrance tickets and it feels like we’re wasting our hard-earned money. Dragging yourself through an experience is not a trip, it’s just annoying. No one gives out medals at the end for “Biggest Vacation Martyr.”
Understand That No Good Trip Goes Unpunished
Brace yourself a little for some sleep deprivation and some minor illnesses once you come back from your vacation. If you can, plan ahead so you have a recovery day at the end of your adventure to just catch up on laundry and get the house and yourselves back in order. Anticipate you might have to use your down day to tend to things you forgot to take care of while you were away or that came up when you returned.
Special Tips for Traveling in Airports With Babies and Toddlers On Your Family Vacation
Carry As Little As Possible, Check The Rest
Know how, when you go through the airport, your carry-on luggage and personal item seem to somehow get heavier and heavier the further you walk? Multiply that times ten with a baby because you now have an extra PERSON you are lugging. There are obviously some items you have to bring with you – a small stack of diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, bottles if formula-feeding. But, the less stuff you have to lug through security, through the terminal or into the overhead bins, the better. Better to check it and forget it, in my book.
Don’t Spend Extra Time in The Airport, Except When Boarding The Plane.
A lot of new parents think they should get to the airport super early if they are traveling with a baby or child. Usually, though, that just means extra chances for meltdowns (for your baby, not you) and germs. Obviously, give yourself enough time to make your plane, but don’t plan to linger excessively. On the other hand, when it’s time to board the plane, consider your unique situation. Airlines offer family boarding early on in the boarding process, which can be tempting. If you don’t have an assigned seat or you have carry-on luggage that demands overhead bin space, take full advantage of this perk. If you haven’t brought much with you, though, consider minimizing the amount of time you have to sit “trapped” in a small space with your infant.
Stay Away From Sick People
This is a hard one since, notoriously, airports and airplanes tend to be germ fests. The number one way to avoid a baby getting seriously ill from air travel? Don’t take them until after they are old enough to receive their first set of vaccines and are out of the highest infection risk zone (in our practice, we don’t give the first set of vaccines until at least six weeks old and recommend waiting a few weeks after vaccination for the shots to take effect before flying. I waited until about three months until flying with my first baby). Once you’re on your way, it pays off to wash your hands well with soap and water often, wipe down the seats, and to keep your baby away from direct contact with sick people.
Help With Ear Discomfort
Once you depart on your flight, you’ll want to help minimize discomfort in your baby’s ears, which can build as the pressure changes with altitude shifts. Giving baby something to suck on (a pacifier, a bottle or a breast) can really help. On the way up, it’s obvious when you need to pay attention to helping your little one with this but, on the way down, it’s easy to get the timing wrong. Instead of waiting for the flight staff to tell you you’ve started your descent, be observant. When you start to feel the plane descending, get your baby going on an ear pain prevention plan by initiating some type of sucking motion (note: if they are asleep, let them sleep). For toddlers, let them know their ears might feel funny on the way up or down. Ask them to look up and make a silent lion’s roar to help initiate a yawn, thereby triggering the eustachian tube to clear.
Give Into (Just a Little) Screentime
When parents ask me about alternatives to screentime on airplanes for older kids (two years and up), I have to laugh. Most of the time, I’m a huge proponent of avoiding excessive screentime for our kids. It distracts us from making real connections as families, replaces opportunities for creativity and physical activity, and contributes to behavioral problems. When it comes to super long plane rides, though, it’s a different story. Since it’s completely unnatural for us to ask our kids to sit for six hours in a tiny seat, it’s also completely natural for them to get bored out of their minds and want to watch movie after movie.
Consider making a plan ahead of the flight with your child. For longer flights, we like to have our five-year-old play games and draw for the first hour or so, then watch a movie, then take a brain and food break. If we’ve still got hours to go, we definitely let her dig back into another show. Treat screentime like ice cream. If you give it to your kids in large quantities every day, it will overwhelm their little systems. If you let loose every once in a while, it’s not such a big deal.
So you have a baby or a toddler on a plane? Oh, well. Tons of other passengers have been in your situation and we’re not irritated when we hear your baby cry or hears you say for the umpteenth time, “Johnny, please get back in your seat.” Those who are will have to just suffer through. If your baby wails the entire trip, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the patience and understanding of others around you. But those little gifts some propose to assuage your neighbors preventatively? Unless you have tons of free hours you would not rather spend doing ANYTHING else, I say forget it. You paid to be on the plane just like everyone else and you’re doing way more hard to work to make the trip successful than any of your seatmates.
When I Am Eighty
My friend Christie, a business exec coach and an all-around amazing working mom puts family vacations and moments into perspective so well:
“I often ask my clients to imagine they are in their eighties looking back on their lives. What do they want to say about it? What would they regret? What priorities and values do they want to say they lived by?… When I’m older and look back at my life and look around the room, (here’s) what I want to see: family and friends. True connection is what actually matters.”
We live in a world where overdoing it is the norm and where taking a break is often seen as a sign of weakness. It’s not. Take a family vacation. You don’t just want, you need, to create some happy places for your family—places you’ll remember when your kids are grown, memories you can access on your hardest days, moments that will, in the end, be the best ones of your life.
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My husband is not doing what I need him (want him) to do fast enough, the way I’d do it, or with the same level of intensity I think it requires. He’s putting it off, waiting ’til the last minute, choosing to watch a show on the couch with his feet up and his stinkin’ craft beer in hand instead of jumping into action. We’ve got a lot to get done before tomorrow hits and my mental load is piling up while his seems to be shrinking.
What’s so pressing? Making a five-year-old’s lunch. Yeah, I’m all worked up over packing turkey and cheese into a hot pink lunchbox for my daughter’s school day. I asked him to do it about an hour ago and there’s still a loaf of cheddar on the counter with no other signs of progress in sight and it is irking me to no end.
It’s not the first time I’ve gotten all up in arms over something completely insignificant and it’s not the first time we’ve had tension over shared responsibilities and division of labor. A fifteen-year marriage, two kids, two (plus) careers, and a 30-year mortgage puts pressure on even the best-intentioned partners. And, as my husband and I sort out how to balance our own individual needs and desires with the needs of our family, there’s often some dissonance. The more I talk to other moms—especially working moms like me—the more I find a common struggle to be a modern mom in relationships that are still in the process of becoming modern.
Modern Partnership Struggles
Here’s what I mean: my husband and I both work full time. I plan the meals, buy the clothes, do the laundry, sign my kids up for all the activities, make sure the school projects are completed. My husband does A LOT (far more than making simple lunches), but when it comes to our house, our lives, and our kids, I take on the mental load.
I’m not whining, I’m just stating facts. Women still do more unpaid household tasks in most households, even if they’re primary breadwinners like I am. Turns out gender norms may be changing in the workplace relatively rapidly but, on the homefront, things are often still a little archaic.
My partner is a caring guy who wants the best for our family and who values equality and teamwork. He’s all both of us pursuing our passions and working together to support our kids, but he and I still somehow struggle, no matter how modern we’ve tried to make our marriage.
Blast From The Past
I mean, just a generation or two ago, our life would have seemed ludicrous to most. Our parents and their parents all divided tasks, generally, along gender lines. That wasn’t always fair, and it definitely left women without opportunities and options but, when it came to relationships, it probably was at least less confusing. You do this (childcare, housework, home life) and I’ll do that (work at an office).
You still see vestiges of the old mentality whenever multiple generations gather for holidays or in social settings. Almost every month in my office some sweet grandma will come along to the first newborn check-up, smiling at her son as he changes his baby girl’s diaper with swagger. “He’s such a good father, isn’t he?” she asks me. If by that she means he is able to perform some basic tasks related to keeping a child from getting a urinary tract infection, then YES, for sure. And, when I see the dads beaming from the praise, I just smile back and nod. But, the reality is, helping with a few diaper changes isn’t going to cut it for the “Dad of the Year” award anymore. Most moms I know expect more than that in this day of age.
Modern-Day Dads and Mental Load
I’m not bagging on modern-day dads (I’m also not saying all family structures or family struggles are the same—far from it—or that all dads are even the same). In fact, I feel kind of bad for modern dads. I mean, not as bad as I feel for modern-day moms. But I do feel bad. It seems like, when we empowered women to be just as fierce in the workplace as at home, forever changing modern-day motherhood, we forgot about educating men on how to change their perspectives on modern-day fatherhood.
We figured they would just adjust without any effort or preparation, magically skilled and knowledgeable in all things baby or toddler. We wrote them hardly any books and developed hardly any support groups or resources for them on the topic. Add in the Mr. Mom monickers and the media depictions of helpless new dads fumbling through parenting — it’s a not a surprise a lot of dads I see aren’t sure exactly where they fit into the new parenting paradigm. By the way, before you send me a note describing how your partner is the bomb and has it all together and doesn’t NEED books or resources, please realize I meet tons of amazingly-talented fathers every day who are killin’ it in the modern dad department—I know not all dads’ struggles are alike, just like not all moms’ struggles are alike.
How do successful moms share the responsibilities and pressures of work and home with their partners in a way that approaches equality and true partnership?
I sat down and talked with other professional moms about how they successfully handle home and life balance with their significant others. Some work from home, some are high-level execs, but they all used these common tactics to work as a team.
They make their partners aware of the tasks they’re carrying and of when they’re feeling overwhelmed. They share their mental load.
One mom, a couples therapist, explained that, instead of telling her husband what to do, she spends a lot of time just sitting down with her spouse listing off what SHE needs to get done (or make decisions about) and then asking her husband to do the same. She comes at it from the perspective that there are a lot of times she knows her husband has no idea about all the things she’s trying to manage and that there must be some things he’s thinking about that she has no idea about, too. She’s giving him the benefit of the doubt. How does she get the conversation started? They plan what she calls family business meetings, put them on the calendar (“I’d love to say every week but, let’s be real, we have two young kids”) and, just like they map out their finances, they talk through their responsibilities.
They divide based on strengths and weaknesses—or based on practical time or financial considerations.
Another mom I talked to explained: “Hey, I’ve got a job where, if I don’t go to work, we potentially lose out on thousands of billable dollars.”
If that mom doesn’t work for a day, no one brings in money for her small business. Her husband, on the other hand, works for a traditional organization that offers paid sick days and vacation days as part of his compensation package. If he misses a day of work, it’s stressful, but it’s not earth-shattering. While the world may still expect her to drop everything to pick up her child at daycare for an illness, that just doesn’t make sense for them.
“That doesn’t mean that, sometimes, my desire to be with my kids when there’s a problem doesn’t win out over left-brain analytics and money, but nine times out of ten, the choice is a no-brainer.”
They use a common language when talking about what needs to get done.
A part-time mom explained that, since her partner is a businessman, she uses business team lingo when trying to divide and conquer:
“So, I’m trying to strategize about how we’ll get everything accomplished forLeah’s start to the school year. Let’s talk through the components we need to make this successful.
Another mom described her approach based on her and her husband’s mutual love of sports:
“Listen, what part of the team can you head up the next few weeks? If we’re going to win with everything going on this month, we’re really going to have to work hard.”
They use technology to their advantage.
Shared calendars (I like Google Calendar for visually coordinating schedules and to-dos)
Communication apps (Marco Polo—a video chat app that lets you communicate like FaceTime but without having to talk in real time)
Evernote (great for creating and sharing lists, notes, and reminders with your family members)
Trello (like an electronic corkboard that makes daunting tasks like vacation planning way easier).
Of course, sometimes it’s better just to go low-tech when you really want to accomplish something. I still make lists in a paper notebook and affix magnetic whiteboards and paper meal planners to my fridge.
In the end, they choose to ignore and realize that, sometimes, “haters gonna hate.”
They, just like me, totally ignore eye rolls, small huffs, and pained expressions when it comes to handing off a little more of their mental loads to their partners.
“I feel like I just have to get over it when I perceive that my husband is annoyed when I let him know what he needs to do so we can keep our house and our home running. I get it. No one wants to be told what to do but, in the process of offloading some of my mental load, sometimes that’s just how it has to happen.”
They extend grace to themselves and to their partners as we all make this pretty complicated transition.
“Sometimes you don’t get all the recognition you feel like you deserve (when you’re a mom),” one mom told me. “Sometimes I feel like my husband should be on the sidelines with the biggest loudest blow horn, painted sign, pom poms, shirt with my name on it, screaming at the top of his lungs about how amazing I’m doing at life…and when I look over and his eyes are closed on the couch, I first think what the heck? And secondly I think, am I doing that for him? (That’s when I realize) he’s doing “it all” too.”
They take a giant step back.
It’s annoying to have someone looking over your shoulder, micromanaging your every move. If you’ve ever had a super-controlling boss or even a nitpicky parent, you know the feeling. When someone doesn’t trust us or tries to manage us, it makes us feel resentful and irritated. We sometimes even lose our organic interest in the topic and stop putting our best effort into it.
That’s what happens when we don’t allow our partners to play an equal role in taking care of our children. We kind of sabotage our hope of true co-parenting. Instead, be conscious about how to empower your other half to be the parenting boss more often. That might mean actually leaving the house so he has the space to parent without your eagle eyes. It definitely will mean holding your tongue (or your own sighs or eye rolls or judgment) if he’s not doing things exactly how you would do it.
My child had food to eat for school today.
My husband eventually packed my daughter’s lunch (at 5 o’clock in the morning when he woke up and wandered into the kitchen to make it). All that irritation and impatience were in vain. My husband, it turns out, is perfectly capable of being a parent if I let him be one—even if it’s not the high-strung one I am sometimes.
Sometimes the simplest squabbles help us re-evaluate the most complex relationships we have. In my life, as a working mom trying to make things work, my parenting relationship with my husband is often one of those, especially when it comes to balancing our mental load. The more I give into the fact that we modern families are all in transition, in flux, in “figure it out mode”, the less it all seems like one giant struggle and the more it seems like an opportunity for teamwork and for growth.
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I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix lately. Scratch that. I’m kind of always watching Netflix. This month, though, is January—a time for New Year’s resolutions and mommyhood goals. So, as I sat watching my nightly dose of Netflix last week, I came across a new series:Tidying Up. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you probably will soon. The main star, Marie Kondo, is like the guru of keeping all things organized.
I started watching the show because, well, hey, I could use some tidying tips just like all the other moms I know. It definitely delivered. I learned a whole new way of folding (basically fold all your clothes into little rectangles, organize vertically when possible, and put like shapes or sizes together), but by episode 8, the key to Marie Kondo’s success with struggling families was clear: you need less stuff than you think you do and you’ll be able to enjoy your life more if you only have to take care of the things you really cherish.
Marie’s secret to success, which she says so often you start to get a little nauseated after you hear it enough, is to choose items in your life that “spark joy.”
Like I said, it’s a little cheesy, or at least it seems that way on the surface. Somehow though, as you watch these families part ways with their unnecessary clutter and start to truly enjoy their belongings and their spaces it’s almost, dare I say, tear-jerking. Episode after episode (don’t hate on me—I didn’t have work the next day when I started watching and I love a good TV binge session from time to time), you watch people get back to what they intended for their families, for their homes, for their lives. It gets real deep real fast, people.
Of course, that next weekend, I started doing a modified version of the KonMari cleaning method. I went through my house category by category, parting with the excess, neatly folding and arranging. Marie actually recommends that you thank each item—I tried my best, but failed after a few hours. My house WAS definitely cleaner and calmer. It wasn’t perfect—with two kids under the age of six trailing behind me pulling freshly-sorted crayons and toys onto the carpet behind me, it’s never going to be—but it was better.
Probably more important than that, though, was the mental process I went through. I learned so much by analyzing, piece by piece, item by item, what I really needed and what was weighing me down—what things I didn’t even really care about but just kept picking up and putting back on a shelf over and over again out of routine.
Marie was right. The more I practiced some mindfulness about what sparked joy for me, the more easily I was able to make really good decisions about what I actually wanted my home to be like and to look like (ie. very decluttered).
Plus, (you knew I was going to go here so let’s just go for it) the more I looked at my house that way, the more I started to look at my life that way. The more I pondered, the more I started to think about what I go around doing week after week, day after day, that I feel like I have to do—either to keep up with the Joneses or to keep myself overly busy because that’s just what “we moms” do or JUST BECAUSE I’VE NEVER TAKEN THE TIME TO THINK ABOUT IT. I started thinking about how sparking joy is usually pretty far down on my priority list (It’s high on my list for my kids, but it’s relatively low on my list for myself). I started realizing that, not only was it time to clean things out and get more joy in my house, it was also time to declutter my schedule and get more joy in my HOME and with my FAMILY.
One of the psychologists in my pediatrics clinic taught me a powerful trick to that end because organizing your life according to joy levels is a lot more complicated than donating a five-year-old shirt you’re done wearing to Goodwill. She asks families she sees in our office to get a monthly calendar and write down all of their obligations—meetings, appointments, big school projects, after-school or weekend activities. Unless it’s something they really look forward to all week long, she has them write it all down in red. Then she has them take a blue pen and write down all the activities they do that are for relaxation, for recreation or for fun.
The results are often shocking to patients as they realize just how much time they spend throughout the week spinning plates.
It turns out, the more plates you have to spin, the more work it takes to just keep them all in motion. It’s one thing to get my two daughters to dance class or to music lessons. It’s quite another thing to set three alarms a few months ahead so I don’t miss the opportunity to sign them up in the first place. No wonder I’m (we’re) all stressed to the max. In some ways, we’re choosing to be.
I’m probably never going to perfectly declutter my home while my kids are young. The constant influx of artwork, clothing, and toys almost guarantees that. I can though, along with all the other families I meet, work on a less is more mentality. When our physical spaces, our schedules, and our minds are simpler, they allow us to focus more on what really matters, instead of focusing on trying to maintain a bunch of junk.
This month, here’s what I’m working on in the declutter department:
1. I’m following a kind of modified KonMari organizing method:
I’m going through clothes, toys, books, kitchenware, bathroom, and sentimental items one at a time. I’m choosing which items I want to keep based on what brings me joy (minus kitchen utensils and toothbrushes). So far, I’ve done clothes and toys. I probably got rid of 30% of the items I had in each category—many of which I was just holding onto for the sake of nostalgia or guilt. In the beginning, I did try to thank each discarded item like Marie suggests. Still, I’m going to be totally honest: at some point, I stopped feeling so guilty as I started seeing empty shelf space and I felt free to just keep on trekking with some pretty split-second decisions that required hardly any pondering.
2. I’m looking at my own calendar. I’m rying to decide what takes up the most of my time outside of work and where I can cut back or streamline.
I canceled my daughter’s dance class across town because I found a, maybe less than perfect but still totally great, option that required less time on the road. I’m figuring out ways to run at lunch a few days a week when possible. It allows me to clear up my evening time to be with my kids.
3. I’m doing more weekend meal planning and grocery shopping.
4. We bought two mini whiteboards —one for parents and one for kids—that we keep visible by our family calendar in the kitchen.
Each whiteboard has room to note upcoming special events, lessons, meetings, and trips we have planned for the coming week. Some weeks I look at the whiteboards and they look crazy with activities. That’s okay. If they are, it’s a visual reminder that we need to scale back the next week.
Tidy House = Happy Home
I’m probably never going to be the most organized mom out there. Since perfection is overrated, though, I’m not too worried about getting a Housekeeper of the Year Award. To me, getting decluttered isn’t just about cleaning up my house (though that is an amazing byproduct). The way I declutter or organize might very well change next month—or the next time I watch a Netflix series—anyway. It’s about figuring out what’s really important, what really brings joy—in our homes, our schedules, in our lives. And, well, who doesn’t want a little more of that?
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This week the Tooth Fairy made her first appearance in my home…and it was glorious. My daughter can tell you exactly how she looks: blonde, curly hair, a sparkly wand…and a Moana dress. She can also tell you how she sounds; apparently. When she dropped the cash under my five-year-old’s pillow, I’m told she whispered in a tinkly, bell-like voice, “Congratulations.”
“Mom, I saw her and she was SOOOO nice,” I heard all through breakfast the next morning.
Now, I have nothing against pink and sparkles, but I try my hardest to not get too caught up in making every single celebration or life event for my kids a Pinterest-worthy moment. My daughter’s last full-blown birthday party two years ago took so much planning and was such a disaster, we skipped the cake and candles all together this time around (just imagine a very precocious preschooler sobbing, “Why’d you invite all these people?” after she worked for a month painstakingly decorating each handwritten party announcement in glitter paint).
Nope, these days I keep it simple when it comes to holidays, birthdays, and the like. I’ve been working especially hard this season on not getting too caught up in commercialism traps, instead focusing on family time and family experiences. Sometimes, though, I forget in the process just how cool it can be for young kids, newly aware, to think about the Easter Bunny or Santa paying them a special visit. This Tooth Fairy thing reminded me. Yes, ma’am, that ethereal, incisor-snatching night owl got to me.
I found myself suddenly caught up in the specific milestone of losing a first tooth. I think it’s because my daughter was so excited about this transition in her body—unafraid, proud, joyful—that her excitement rubbed off on me, too. For weeks, she went around wiggling her tooth and asking everyone else in the family to do the same. She told her grandparents she planned on snapping a picture of the Tooth Fairy when she entered her bedroom (or trapping her in a box so she could get a really good look. I told her that sounded a little aggressive and maybe we could stick with a sneaky photo op).
That joy, it was infectious, and it reminded me of three things:
1. As a parent, it’s not my job to bring my child joy, but, when I can, we both win.
We can’t and we shouldn’t endeavor to make our kids happy all the time.Happiness is fleeting and conditional. We can, though, look for opportunities to be fully present with our kids, not just with our physical presence or our attention, but also with our emotional presence. Think about the best moments you’ve had with your kids, about the moments that you go back to in your mind when you’re having a hard day or feeling discouraged. For me, those moments always have pure joy as a major element (and usually music, too): singing at the top of our lungs to the entire album of The Greatest Showman on a road trip, snuggling up in our bed on a Saturday morning, racing through the park playing tag with breathless energy. Sometimes our kids need us to be just as invested in their excitement and their enthusiasm as they are.
2. You have to find joy yourself to give it to your kids.
It’s hard to pull a fast one on our children. They can tell when we pretty much hate our lives and they can see right through it when we try to fake contentment. Instead, focus on taking care of yourself, embracing your own life choices (especially when it comes to work), and getting mindful so you can turn right back around and infuse joy into your kids’ lives. Is any mom out there in the whole world who’s going to do that perfectly all the time? No, but it’s worth it to move in that direction.
3. Milestones really do matter.
Losing your first tooth is a major milestone. So is taking your first step, scoring your first soccer goal, and getting your driver’s license. Our kids don’t need us to be all rah-rah about every single little thing they do (telling our kids “good job” and “you’re so smart” over and over is detrimental). Instead, we should be encouraging our children to have a growth mindset by telling them how proud we are of their efforts and celebrating when they reach their hard-earned goals. In the end, milestones (and holidays and celebrations) all provide an opportunity to build family traditions and to make memories with our kids. As we recognize the effort or bravery it takes our kids to move through a specific stage, we ultimately instill confidence and encourage resilience.
I don’t know about you but, sometimes, I forget just how totally RAD the little stepping stones of childhood can be for our kids as they experience them.
Especially this season, I’m working on embracing the make-believe and the magical with my little ones. Setting out cookies for Santa, finding a note and a dollar from the Tooth Fairy, wishing on a star—these aren’t only the magical moments of childhood, they’re also an invitation to love the things our kids love, to be 100 percent “in it” for the moments that really matter, to be a little more childlike ourselves as we approach our parenting. There is absolutely nothing like watching your toothless five-year-old grin from ear to ear for the first time, just like there’s nothing like seeing your baby smile or hearing her say her first word. Yep, this first tooth moment is going in the baby book—not because it’s momentous to the rest of the world, but because it’s momentous to my daughter and to me—a place we both found a second of pure joy. Thank you, Tooth Fairy.
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