The Mom Game: Fall Edition

Peter and Grace.
Peter and Grace.

Fall is definitely my favorite season. I do like summer, but it can get a little frenetic sometimes, all that sand, surf, and sunblock, sunblock, sunblock. (I have three kids, so sunblock application is an event around here.) Worse though, it always feels like you have to be happy in the summer… you can’t be at the beach and in a bad mood, it just feels wrong. In fact, summer feels like what being on coke must feel like, all that pressure and artificial chipperness. So that is why, as a closet melancholy soul, I start longing for fall as soon as August rolls around: the slowness, the come-indoors-ness, the return to the familiar rhythm of a school year, the anticipation of holidays, the soups and breads and desserts that all start to come back. (Not to mention the apple and pumpkin fanaticism, including the pumpkin spice latte, which is a cliché that I fully, unironically enjoy.) Yeah, fall is a homecoming of sorts. And I like coming home.

But with the return to rhythm there are also these unspoken rules about how you Do Fall. I’m sure it varies from place to place. Around here though, Fairfield county people, specifically women, specifically moms, Do Fall by checking off these items on their list. First off, there is Fall Fashion. I went to a farm this past Saturday with the hubs and kids (that’s item number 2 on the list, by the way – Go to Farm with Hubs and Kids, take smiley pictures of kids rolling around in pumpkin patch, preferably sporting Fall Fashion, the Kid Version). Anyway, at this farm, I was veritably smacked in the face with everyone sporting their Fall Fashion. It was like a Fall Fashion runway strewn with vests, scarves, flannel shirts, boots, and tights (pants or not pants? The debate rages on). And yes, sometimes all at the same time. Okay, maybe I pay a little bit too much attention to what people wear, but frankly people, I don’t think I am the only one. I legit had a chick do the once-over (not in a good way) on me and I thought, Honey, your Uggs aren’t splattered in baby spit up from approximately last fall, so… you win.

Winning. Yes. I think that is what causes my fall anxiety.

I'm Peter and I'm adorable. Winning yet?
I’m Peter and I’m adorable. Winning yet?

I mean, I’m a decent athlete, but I never really cared that much about whether I was the fastest runner or hardest softball hitter or whatever. Board games, I enjoy them, but mostly to make fun of myself/socialize/cheer on the hubs (who is actually really good at winning board games. I see you Andy). I didn’t really think I needed to win at stuff. But then momhood came around and suddenly there was a whole new world, a whole new set of rules, about how to do it. And suddenly, I wanted to win at this. I wanted to Win at Being Mom.

And fall – lovely, languid, leafy Fall — kicks up this mom anxiety in a big way. Fall Fashion’s one thing, taking photos of kids in pumpkins is another thing, but my list of stuff to do in the fall goes on. Navigating the new scene as your kid enters another grade in school – that’s a thing. Structuring the school year for self and kids in a way that leaves people busy in a good way but not burnt out — that’s a thing. Mastering the art of the slow cooked, cold-weather meal – that’s a thing. Keeping your house clean somehow with three tiny mess-making humans living in it – that’s a thing. And Doing All The Things with Pumpkins, such as placing them artfully next to a pot of plump mums on your porch (guilty) down to putting them in every kind of drink or dessert known to humankind (double guilty), down to putting your kids on the requisite hayride overlooking a pumpkin patch (guilty, and put it on Facebook)…. These are all a thing to me.

Okay, before you wave me away with the hashtag #firstworldmomproblems, here’s the thing. This season may bring with it a set of expectations we moms feel pressured to fulfill, but the expectations –of all kinds – are always there. Sometimes they’re healthy (feed your kids!), sometimes not so healthy (guilt if you ever do it out of your freezer!). Seasons, holidays, social events of all kinds throw into stark relief our true insecurities over whether we are winning, or even very good, at this mom thing.

Halloween is a perfect example. Now, I will admit something. I am a person slowly recovering from the false expectation of having to make everything from scratch. (It was a prison, I tell you!!) When my first son was three and in preschool for the first time, I broke my back (and shattered my sanity) trying to make him this Buzz Lightyear Costume. Here he is, all smiley and cute, as Buzz:

IMG_1012
My Sam. All of three years old. I can’t even.

Adorable? Yes. Impressive? I guess so. Worth it? Um…

What the Facebook photo didn’t tell you is that I spent way too much money making that costume (close to what I’d pay on Amazon Prime for a ready-made one). That I dragged my 3 year old and my four month old baby girl all over creation to procure supplies for this costume. That the several days before Halloween were some of the most stressful days that year, due to a baby that inexplicably stopped napping that week and needed to be held or nursed every forty minutes. That Sam watched way too much TV during the making of that costume. That when I brought him to their preschool Halloween celebration wearing it, sure, I was proud of myself, and sure, he liked it, but deep down, I was exhausted, resentful, and a little envious of the moms who had plopped down twenty bucks at Target and were done with it. They hadn’t given 48 hours of their lives away.

So the next year, he recycled a costume from when he was 2, and I called it good. He loved it, I was happy.

Expectations. How we Do Mom becomes How we Do Halloween. Does any of this sound crazy yet?

This year, I went to another one of those ubiquitous Halloween events for kids at a church. There were the amazing homemade costumes. Awesome. And there were kids dressed by Party City. Cool too. There was one girl in an adorable and unique [storebought] costume and when I complimented it, her mom said to me, “I usually make their costumes each year, but…”

But stop, girlfriend! You don’t need to tell me. I wanted to say to her, I have been there.  I am there. I have felt like I needed to Do Mom the “right way” and worse, when I felt like I felt short, to explain myself. But we don’t. None of us have to explain ourselves, much less to each other, and certainly not to ourselves. There’s more than one way to get a Halloween costume, and at the end, it’s all about the kid, isn’t it? If they end up wearing that thing all day at that event, in the car both ways, and then to bed later that night… well, then you know you’ve got a winner. Whether it’s homemade, storebought, or anything in between.

This year, I did a hodgepodge: Sam’s was a birthday gift, Grace’s I bought at Target, and Peter’s I threw together with fabric glue, felt, and stuff he had in his closet. Each kid had a smile as big as the sky and nobody had to yell or drive to Staples. Win.

Peter as R2D2, Me as a last-minute C3PO, Sam as Darth Vader, Grace as a Generic Princess [Leia?] and Andy as the Emperor. Can you tell whose costumes were an afterthought?
Peter as R2D2, Me as a last-minute C3PO, Sam as Darth Vader, Grace as a Generic Princess [Leia?] and Andy as the Emperor. Can you tell whose costumes were an afterthought?
Now I’m not trying to create another layer of guilt and shame over Doing Stuff. We should celebrate each accomplishment and relish the joy it brings to us and others. We should keep encouraging other to work hard and faithfully, and affirming others when there’s a job well done. But it’s when we compare our accomplishments and our choices to those of other parents with a spirit of either judgment or shame, or when we exceed our own boundaries trying to chase some idea of perfection…. That’s when our efforts miss the mark.

We all know that as parents there are so many choices available to us, and we keep looking to each other, to the left, to the right, behind and in front of us, for clues that we are doing okay. Halloween costumes are one example, but these mini competitions of true momhood are everywhere. And I’m slowly, painfully learning to give up the fight to let [X mom thing] determine my identity. I’ve been a stay at home mom, I’ve been a working mom; I’ve nursed, I’ve pumped, I’ve given formula; I’ve co-slept, I’ve sleep trained; I’ve cloth diapered, I’ve slapped disposables on; I’ve been on board with homeschool, public school, private school, religious and not (and the jury’s still out on next September); I’ve had days of having a pristine home with shiny floors, I’ve had [many more] days of just keeping up with the spit-up hitting the rug; I’ve had days of no screen time and lots of “free play” (outside, even!), I’ve given my baby an iPhone in the hopes of closing my eyes for just a minute. I’ve been judged and, far too often, I have been the judger. I haven’t done it all (whatever that even is), but I’ve done a lot of it, and at the end of the day what I’ve learned is this: stop playing the game. Just love on your kids the best you know how in that particular season in your life. Ask for help, but don’t be afraid to try something outside of our comfort zone and see if it stretches you. Make those Peter Rabbit cupcakes if it gives you life (it did!) but forego homeschooling this year if it’ll suck the life out of you (just the thought of it did). And walk alongside other moms who are just doing their best with where they are — walk and listen without judgment and without explaining yourself, impossible as that may sound, but it’s worth even the smallest effort, because it takes a village to raise a kid and it takes an army of moms to support each other in this crazy world.

I’ve heard that the game of baseball is best played when players are relaxed. That’s why they chew gum, because it relaxes the nerves. Like a true New Yorker I used to really admire A Rod, back in the day, but you could always tell when he was not relaxed. It showed in his game. Especially when the nasty steroid news hit, you could tell when he was tied up in knots about what the press, the fans, everyone thought of him. Dude could just not play ball. But when a player’s relaxed, when he’s got this peace so that they’re at home at the plate, you can tell that to him, there’s nothing in the world but him and that ball… that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you connect.

Same thing with being a parent. We can look all around us for cues for how we’re supposed to be doing it, worried that we are one step behind the next family. But really, when you were given this amazing life to shepherd and feed and fall in love with, what is it really about? What was it ever about? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d even take it one step further to say…. Parenting was never really just about the kid, either. It’s about following Jesus to where he wants to take us as a family.

Lately I’ve been learning a lot from this one passage in the Bible, Philippians 2:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”

and then on to explain the heart of Jesus, of of humility alongside immeasurable power.

Which really leads me to examine my motives. Am I doing this [fill in the blank mom thing] out of selfish ambition? Conceit? To be seen by others? Or am I, in humility, putting others first? And it’s in this way, this last way, that we really come home to the heart of motherhood. In living a life of self-forgetfulness, we slowly, inscrutably, become a little more like Jesus. A man of incredible strength in every way, harnessed and spent, for the sake of us, for the least and littlest of us. And when I think about it that way, winning doesn’t seem so important after all. That thing that I have to do can wait, and the little hands reaching and little voice calling “Mama, play?” deserve the best of me. And so I play.

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