I’m at the McDonald’s outdoor playscape — a place I would never have taken my first child. The junk food! The germs! The consumerism! The GMOs!
But after 10 years of parenting and almost 40 years of living, I have developed the perspective that being too idealistic about what I will or won’t expose my kids to is just nonsense. It leads to nothing but stress and unrealistic expectations.
I don’t love everything about moving into the “older mom” camp, but letting go of the idea of perfection is definitely a perk of being an older mom that I have fully embraced.
So here I am at McDonald’s, letting my 3-year-old drink chocolate milk that’s probably full of hormones and antibiotics that will destroy his ability to have children. But hey, he’s occupied. And they have Wi-Fi here, so I’m one happy camper (smart move on the free Wi-Fi, Mickey D’s).
He’s taken to playing with a set of twins who look to be just a little bit younger than him. They “take turns” sliding down the slide, which means that they keep kicking each other in the butt as they scramble to get in their turns, one after the other. It’s cute and endearing, and I’m just happy my kid is out of my hair for a bit.
The twins’ mom strikes up some conversation. She asks how old my son is, whether he’s in school, yadda, yadda, yadda. But then she cuts to the chase.
“Is he potty trained yet?”
Isn’t it funny how you can inquire about the bathroom habits of little humans within 30 seconds of meeting a stranger?
“Yeah, kind of,” I say. “He still wears a pull-up for naps and night and when I’m too lazy to deal with public restrooms, like when we’re on a road trip or something.”
“Really? Oh my God, you don’t know how much better that makes me feel. My twins just turned 3, and they have been impossible to train.”
We went on to talk some more about potty training and milestones. I shared the horror story of potty training my first child, a process that wasn’t pretty, nor was it completed in a timely fashion at all.
Another perk of being an older mom: Even the most horrific parts of parenting are things that you can laugh at now.
But I truly felt bad for this mom because she was putting a lot of pressure on herself to get it right with potty training and, I suspect, other aspects of parenting as well. After all, this is her first time parenting little ones. (And goodness gracious, she’s got two of them at once!) I could tell how desperately she wanted to get things right, stay on schedule, keep up with the Joneses.
She wanted everything to be perfect.
I was her once too. My first child was my world. I responded to his each and every need. I hovered. I honed. I tried to make each day special. I scoured Pinterest for art projects for us to do. We wrote a freaking book together — when he was 2 years old!
There was nothing inherently wrong with any of it. Well, maybe the hovering; that makes me cringe when I think about it. The problem was the intention behind it. I wanted him to have a perfect childhood. I wanted our days to be all sunshine and roses — picture perfect.
But they couldn’t be, because he was a kid. A messy, tantrum-y, whiny, stubborn, picky, strong-willed, day-ruining, exhausting, petulant, immature kid. Sometimes my attempt at picture-perfect days would work — sort of. But more often than not, the shit would hit the fan (sometimes literally), and I’d end my days with him feeling like a total and complete failure.
It took me a long time, I mean a really long time, to realize that there was nothing wrong with him, or me. It was all about my expectations. Basically, I became a much happier parent once I realized that perfection in parenting is a myth — that it’s complete and utter bullshit.
Our best is quite enough actually. When it comes down to it, our best is pretty much all our kids want. They want a messy childhood. They want to be able to wreck our plans in the name of spontaneity, play, and discovery. They want to do things on their own timetable, from getting out of the house on time to getting out of diapers.
Why does it take us parents so long to come to this realization?
I wanted to take this McDonald’s mom by the hand and squeeze the hell out of it. Maybe get a cup of chemical-laden ice water from the McDonald’s counter and dump it on her head. Slap some sense into her idealistic little brain.
But in all seriousness, maybe we seasoned parents can be a little blunt or hard to totally get. Maybe we go around with our laissez-faire attitude, and it’s annoying or offensive to the perfection-seeking brand new parents out there. But we mean well. We want you to feel better, less stressed, less hopeless every time something goes wrong.
We want you to know that parenting isn’t going to get easier — not exactly. Older kids make you want to pull your hair out as much as the younger ones do. And they may sleep through the night, but they will keep you up worrying. But the thing that does get easier is that you release yourself from that big ole myth of perfection.
You say to yourself, “Well, if I could exist on fragmented sleep for five years, I can definitely help my kid with common core math, or at least fake my way through it,” and “If my kid could get out of diapers, he’ll get his ass into college someday.” How he’ll pay for it is another matter entirely though. Just because we’ve let go of perfection when it comes to parenting doesn’t mean we’ve figured out how on earth we’ll finance our kids’ college educations.
That will take some sort of wizardry.