Monday, August 29, 2011

Little Miss Perfect

Not long ago, conducted a survey of over 26,000 moms and the results were revealed both on a Today Show segment and on the internet. Of all the "mom confessions," the one that was least surprising but most bothersome was the number of moms who admitted to passing judgement on other moms. Of course, we're all occasionally guilty of thinking that a kid is too old for a pacifier or that a mom spends too much time at work. But just because we all do it, doesn't mean it's okay. In fact, it's never okay because all we're doing is reinforcing the pressure women face to be perfect at everything.

I know I'm not the only woman who feels like I am expected to be a superhuman combination of Martha Stewart, Betty Crocker, and Carol Brady. Whether the pressure comes from societal, social, or familial sources, it seems there is always a reason to feel inadequate. Do I spend enough time with my kids? Am I providing my family with the right nutrition? Is my house clean enough? Am I taking care of myself? Even if we could do all those things right, there are plenty of other things that no one can balance perfectly. If you work too much, then you're not spending enough time with your kids. If you spend too much time with your kids, then you're "letting yourself go." We just can't win.

It's about time we acknowledge that we're all doing our best even if we're not the best - which no one is and anyone who seems to be is just overly committed to never letting anyone else know about it. So if you're one of those moms who does the flight-of-the-bumblebee-cleanup when a car pulls into her driveway; who can't go anywhere without her makeup; whose kid always wears matching ribbons and bows; and who would never admit that she sometimes feels overworked, overwhelmed, and overtired; well, your secret is out.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect mom, perfect wife, or perfect woman. But there are lots of great ones, and if you're doing your best to be yourself, love your family, and manage the juggling act that is life, then you're one of them. So don't let those "perfect" moms fool you into thinking that anyone else out there has a better handle on life than you do. And don't let the fear of judgement stop you from being proud of who you are and celebrating all that you do right.

That's why people who stop by my house on any given day shouldn't be surprised to find my living room in complete disarray, bed unmade, and dishes piled in the sink; or my kid running around with stains on her shirt, hair not combed, and remnants of lunch stuck on her face; or me with no makeup and a poorly constructed ponytail. If you catch me on a day like that, you'll see no sign of embarrassment over the condition of my house or the appearance of myself or my child. Instead, I'll be proud that I'm confident enough to allow people into the imperfect parts of my life. The same goes for my discipline practices, parenting choices, and marriage dynamics. So go ahead, judge away. At least I know I'm doing my part to break the cycle of perfect images. Of all the judgmental labels people might put on me, I can rest easy knowing that "Little Miss Perfect" will never be one of them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lessons from a Lazy River

Last week Reese and I went to a water park with my friend and her little girl. We spent the morning watching the girls splash in the kiddie pool while we chatted about nothing in particular. Later we floated around on the lazy river where one sentence ran through my mind on a loop: "My life is awesome." Then I thought about Matt sitting in his office on the first full day of school in his new role as the dean of students. I thought about how busy he must have been preparing for all the issues and challenges of the year to come. And here I was participating in an activity that has "lazy" in its title. Gratitude doesn't even begin to describe what I felt in that moment.

I actually experience this feeling quite often - every time Reese and I sit out in the grass and throw potato peels to the chickens, every time we snuggle on the couch to read before nap time, and every time we play at the park in the middle of the day. I think about how lucky I am to have this lifestyle, and I always hope Matt knows how incredibly grateful I am for all that does to provide for us. I try to thank him regularly for his willingness to take on the responsibility that comes with being the sole provider of our income and for all the financial perks he has given up to have a wife at home.

Now, I'm definitely not saying that being an at-home-parent is a cake walk (and if you've been following along, you know I don't think that at all). I work really hard to clean my house and cook good meals and stimulate my child's mind even when I'm bored out of my own. I know Matt feels thankful for all I have sacrificed to support our family in so many other ways, but in the moments when I'm floating down a lazy river in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes I can't help but feel like I got the longer stick.
Every time Matt gets up and puts on a tie and and heads to work while Reese and I hang out in our pajamas, I remember that I have the greatest job in the world. I also remember that I only have this job because I have a wonderful spouse who completely supported my desire to pursue it. At night he comes home and tells me about emails, phone calls, meetings, and mishaps and then I tell him about how we played at the park, swam in the pool, shopped with Grandma, or had play dates with friends. He never acts envious or makes me feel guilty for not making any money. Instead, he sees a clean house, a delicious dinner, and a happy family. He knows that he can sit down and not have to do any laundry or vacuum any carpets, and in those moments he feels just as thankful for me as I feel for him when I'm floating on a lazy river.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Really Matters

When we first decided that I would stay home with Reese, we knew we were going to take a major financial hit. To combat that, we made a plan to scale back our lifestyle. The plan included an agreement that we would discuss any major expenses (which had actually always been our practice but the dollar amount we used to define "major" suddenly became much smaller). During the first six months of my unemployment very few things came up, mostly because we both knew we were pretty limited in the "extras" we could afford. Then in the spring I got invited to go to Atlanta and we had our first "major purchase" conversation.

If you've been following along, you know that I did end up going because I blogged about it back in June, but I never did talk about the conversation that led to my decision to go. When I first decided to talk to Matt, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would convince him that this was a good idea and a worthwhile expense. I thought about the questions he might ask and prepared answers for everything. I wanted him to know that I wasn't just doing this on a whim. My whole argument was based on the way I would react to an equally expensive request from him. But when it came time for the conversation, he had only one question for me: "How important is it to you?"

That's it. That's all he wanted to know. He didn't ask how much it would cost. He didn't care if it fit with his definition of "necessary expenses." He only cared about how much it mattered to me. At first, I didn't know what to say. This was the one question I wasn't prepared to answer. Almost immediately, I felt guilty. If the situation was reversed, I don't think I would have thought to ask him that and if I did, it certainly wouldn't have been my only concern.

Matt always tells me that my happiness is important to him, and it's such a wonderful feeling to see his actions prove his words true. I walked away from that conversation knowing that anything that's important to me is also important to him. I felt loved, supported, and validated, and I never want to forget to reciprocate that back to him. It's been several months and a similar purchase hasn't come up for him yet, but when it does I'll be ready with the only question that really matters.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

At Least I'm Well Paid

Lately it seems like Reese is getting more active by the day.  If I had a dollar for every time I said, "No No, that's icky" or "Can you show Mommy what you have in your mouth?" ... well, let's just say my annual IRA contribution would be taken care of. This kid is more curious than George and has eaten everything from mulch to Kleenex. She recently discovered the garbage and we've already fished out several toys, my sunglasses, and Matt's watch. Every time I hear a loud noise (or no noise at all) coming from the other room, I just roll my eyes and think, "What's she doing now?" In this stage there's never a dull moment whether she's destroying a whole load of folded laundry (that happened yesterday) or rubbing cottage cheese in her hair right before we head to church (that happened today) or throwing my cell phone in the toilet (that hasn't happened yet but I'll keep you posted). During the times when moments like that dominate my day, it's easy to forget why I signed up for this role.

Maybe that's because I didn't choose this for the spilled oatmeal, the crankiness, and the constant demands. I chose it for the way she turns to me in an unfamiliar situation, because she sees me as the source of her security and comfort. I chose it for the nights when I sneak into her room and watch her while she sleeps as I think about how I still can't explain the depths of my love for her. I chose it for days like today when I took her out of the bathtub and wrapped her precious little body in a big giant towel, and she reached her little hands up to my face, pulled me down close to her, and said "Mama." Those are the moments I live for. Those are the moments that melt all the frustration and recharge my battery for the next round of spills and splatters. As my mom used to say, "that's when I collect my paycheck."

I think every parent of a toddler (well, every honest parent anyway) will tell you that it's not always fun. It's tough to have your limits tested every day. It's aggravating to have to repeat yourself over and over and over. It's frustrating to clean up the same messes all the time. Nobody likes to do those things. We do it because it's what we have to do to collect our "paychecks." And if that's all I have to do to experience those smiling, laughing, hand-holding moments; if that's all it takes to be able to feel the kind of love second only to that of God; then it's worth every bit of work. Every time I wipe applesauce off the refrigerator or put all 40 tampons back in the box or wash lipstick off her hands, I just wait for the next "Mama" and then I remember that no matter how aggravating my job can be, at least I'm very well paid.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons from a Post-It Note

Last week, I went into Matt’s dresser to put some clothes away. Normally, I don't venture into this part of our bedroom - mostly because I can’t handle the disorganization of undershirts mixed in with t-shirts and corners of fabric sticking out at odd angles. (I'll spare you the visual on this one. Just take my word for it). I gave up putting his laundry away long ago because I always ended up re-folding everything. But he was working late and I wanted to be nice. So I opened the cabinet and stuck inside the door was a post-it note with my handwriting on it. It said, “You are an amazing husband. Thank you for all you do for me.”

I wrote that note months ago and stuck it on the bathroom mirror after Matt went to bed. I wanted him to leave for work the next morning with a nice reminder of how much he is loved and appreciated. I was touched that he kept it, especially since he’s the kind of guy who throws away greeting cards 30 seconds after he reads them. But the note also made me sad because I couldn’t remember a time since then where either of us did anything like that for each other.

Matt and I have been married for 3 years, together for 6 years, and friends for 9 years. During those years of friendship, I would have given anything to go out with him. If you told me then that I would eventually be married to him and that there would be days where I would take him for granted, I wouldn’t believe you. If you told me that I would get annoyed at how he organizes his dresser or how he always wants to watch Sportscenter or how anyone could possibly put that much ranch dressing on everything, I would have said you were crazy. Back then, I would have gladly agreed to deal with any of his annoying habits if it meant that I could be with him.

I’m amazed at how easy it is (especially after children) to start taking each other’s presence for granted; to stop noticing the wonderful things and start noticing the annoying things. When we first got married, we always did little things to make each other feel special. One time, I came home to find post-it notes everywhere throughout the house (we really like post-it notes). They were in every room; on the TV, the mirrors, the walls, each one bearing different words with the same underlying message – you are loved and appreciated. Even though I know he loves me, hearing it (or reading it) never gets old. In fact, it almost means more as the years go by - as if we’re saying, “Even though I know all kinds of crazy things about you that I didn’t know 6 years ago, I still wouldn’t have it any other way.”

My favorite thing about those little reminders is their simplicity. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time to do something to remind us that we are still in love. The day I saw my post-it note in the dresser, I called Matt’s new office. I knew he wasn’t there, but I left a message and said, “I just wanted you to know that I love you, and I’m proud to be your wife.” The next day I got a text message from him. It said, “I just want to thank you for all you do for me.” So yesterday I was picking up cards for some other occasions, and I grabbed one for Matt too. I’m hoping this will get us back into the regular habit of expressing our love and gratitude more intentionally. I’m so glad he kept my note. It was supposed to be a reminder to him, but it ended up being a good one for me too! I’m also glad I went into his dresser. It was totally worth having to re-fold his shirts.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dancing in the Rain

I've always been the kind of person who looks to the future, and not necessarily in a good way. It's not because I'm exceptionally optimistic or goal-oriented. It's because I'm always trying to "get through" the current stage of my life and anticipating the fantasy of the next stage. For some reason, I always seem to think that some magical change will take place when I reach the next phase of my life, and I'll escape the constant turmoil of day to day living.

I've had an "I just need to get through this" attitude for as long as I can remember. When I was in grad school, I thought my life would calm down when I got a job. Then I got a job and I thought life would calm down when I finished planning my wedding. Then I got married, and then I got a new job, and then I got pregnant, and life just kept getting busier with every step. When Reese was born and I decided to stay home, I remember thinking, "Finally! Finally, life will calm down. Finally, I will have the quiet, easy-going lifestyle I always wanted." Well, as you can see, the chaos followed me again, and I eventually found myself giving up on this phase of life too and thinking, "maybe life will calm down when my kids are in school."

After each phase of my life passes, I get to the new stage and I have just as many demands and just as much stress. Then I look back at the last stage and I'm disappointed that I missed out on making the most of it because I was too busy anticipating its end. I can't allow myself to do the same thing with this phase. My time with Reese is too precious for me to watch it pass by in a chaotic whirlwind. And the only way to prevent that from happening was to figure out why I just can't seem to escape the chaos.  

Lately I've been doing a lot of reflecting on this topic and I think I finally figured it out. It sounds simple now, but I just never realized it before - I have been searching for an external solution to an internal problem. I kept thinking that life would calm down when my circumstances changed; once I finally got to a place where I had fewer daily demands (as if life ever suddenly starts demanding less of us). It took the threat of missing out on the full experience of life with my baby to get me to admit that the problem has nothing to do with my life circumstances and everything to do with how I approach them. This whole time, I should have been thinking, "life will calm down when I calm down."  I kept trying to wait for a change in my circumstances instead of trying to change myself.

All I have to do now is admit that most of my stress is self-inflicted. I put so much unnecessary pressure on myself to do as much as possible every day, and I do it because I'm afraid of life passing me by. How ironic that I am actually causing the thing I fear! It is true that life is busy - there's no getting around it. There's always work to be done, bills to pay, gifts to buy, decisions to make, meals to cook - it never ends. Add in all the unnecessary tasks on my list and the strict timeline I force on myself, and no wonder I'm always just "getting through" life. Well, I don't want to just "get through" life. I'm done waiting for the never-ending storm to pass. It's time to start dancing in the rain.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rethinking Productivity

If you read my last post, you know that Matt and I didn’t have a very busy summer. I wish could say that we accomplished a lot with both of us at home every day; that we didn’t just sit around and do nothing for 6 weeks. Well, that’s pretty much what happened and before I knew it we were in our last week of summer, and all I could think about was all the productivity I missed out on by allowing myself to relax.

So in response to my little end-of-summer freak-out, I decided that when Matt went back to work I would get right back into my jam-packed days of cooking, cleaning, and yes, even showering on a strict schedule. On Monday morning I was up, showered, and had dinner in the crockpot before Reese was even awake. I then proceeded to spend the morning jumping back and forth between cleaning the house and playing games with her. After lunch we headed out to run an unnecessary amount of errands. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we went to 7 different places. I thought I would be so excited to finally have such a productive day, but by the time we got home I didn’t feel any better. In fact, I felt worse because I failed to give Reese my full attention all morning and then I dragged her all over town all afternoon. This is not how I want to start a new year.

Talk about two opposite extremes! I bet I did more in 10 hours on Monday than I did all summer. I shouldn’t be surprised though because I have always been this way. That’s why I always force myself to go 100 miles an hour – because the more I have to do, the faster I do it, and the less I have to do, the more I just sit around doing nothing at all. The overwhelming feeling of extreme busyness motivates me to the point that I create reasons to stay busy (like believing that I need to run 7 errands in one day) just so my life doesn’t fall flat (like having nothing to show for an entire summer). Ironically, I chose to stay home full-time so I wouldn’t miss out on a single moment of Reese’s life, but I rarely slow down enough to be fully present in those moments anyway.

I always thought that letting go of my schedule would mean flying by the seat of my pants all the time with no plan and no consistency. I have to remember that I don’t need to completely let it go in order to get some relief. There is a middle ground somewhere. I just need to separate the necessary (showering and meal planning) from the unnecessary (this is the last time I’ll mention that I ran 7 errands in one day… with a toddler). I also need to remember that spending time with Reese is the single most productive thing I can do in a day. That’s the most important part. I have to stop thinking of Reese as a distraction from my to-do list and start thinking of my to-do list as a distraction from Reese. Sure, I still have to make time to fold some laundry, dust some shelves, and cook some meals but there’s no reason to be doing all of that in one day (or to get down on myself if there are days where I don't do any of it). 

Over the past two months, we spent every day as a family, nurturing our marriage and our relationship with Reese. We taught her a bunch of cute things (like when we say “what’s on your belly?” and she says “a button.” I love that one). We went to the pool and the zoo, visited my family, and took an awesome vacation. We took a lot of pictures and made a lot of special memories. In the end, I even had time left over to learn a valuable lesson. When you look at it that way, I guess I did have a productive summer after all.