When I started out on my parenting journey, I carried a whole backpack full of ideals with me — what kind of mom I was going to be, how my house was going to look, what my kids were going to learn, how they were going to behave, etc. I admit to being an idealist at heart, so it’s not surprising how full that backpack was at the beginning. What’s surprising is how empty it is 16 years later.
Like most newly pregnant moms, I pored over advice about childrearing. I explored different philosophies, tucked ideas into my mental pockets, and scripted as much of the unknown as possible. I planned out motherhood the way I’d plan out a long hike over unfamiliar terrain — consulting guidebooks, interviewing experienced hikers, and plotting out routes on two-dimensional maps. I thought it was smart to be prepared.
I gathered tools and supplies and loaded my ideal elements of motherhood into my pack. Then I set off on the journey, bright-eyed and full of hope.
Almost immediately, I realized that perhaps I’d overpacked. That bag of ideals was bulky and heavy, and some of them were proving totally useless. So I started bailing. Baby sleeping in her own space? See ya! Establishing some sort of schedule? So long! Keeping my house perfectly clean and organized? Gone. One by one, I began tossing ideals that conflicted with reality, weighed me down, and served no purpose.
As I continued on, I learned that there’s so much you cannot prepare for on this trek through parenthood. Storms, like toddler tantrums, can hit out of nowhere and you have to scramble to find shelter. Sometimes you trip and fall, get scraped and bruised, and still have to find a way to keep on walking. Sometimes you take a wrong path, like joining a moms group full of Pinterest-obsessed perfectionists, and end up walking in circles. Sometimes you find yourself teetering along a narrow trail on the edge of a cliff, and you have no choice but to lighten your pack as much as possible.
Through those unexpected obstacles, I’ve watched more of my parenting ideals plummet to their death than I care to count.
I remember thinking with my first baby that I was never going to use the television as a babysitter. I mean, how lazy, right? Fast forward three years, and our daughter is waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, every morning, at 5:00 a.m. I don’t do 5:00 a.m. very well, especially after years of sleep deprivation. Our little angel inexplicably loved to watch our Tae Bo workout video, so we started putting that on for her first thing in the morning to buy ourselves another 45 minutes of sleep.
So many ideals ditched, I tell you. No TV before age 3? HA. No artificial colors or hydrogenated oils? Buh-bye. Growing our own food in our own organic garden? Sayonara, lady! Never yelling at the kids? Have a nice tumble down that mountain.
The truth is, idealism and parenting are like oil and water: You can mix them for a while, but they’re never going to truly blend. Most ideals eventually take the plunge, especially once you add more than one child to the mix. Ideals that had proved valuable and useful with my first kid became burdensome and cumbersome with my second. By the time our third baby rolled around, that pack was almost empty.
At first, letting those things go felt a little disconcerting. You know how when you try to pack lightly you feel like you’re forgetting something important? Carrying fewer ideals felt like that for a while. I guess I thought they protected me in some way. But now that I have so few left, I feel liberated by the lightness of the load.
I’m still making my way on this journey, but real life experience has given me strength, stamina, and smarts. I’ve learned that ideals aren’t always ideal, especially when you’re in unknown territory. Wandering through the wilderness all these years has given me the confidence to deal with reality as it comes, to improvise as necessary, and to navigate the terrain like a pro.
Inexperienced trekkers always tend to carry more than they need. I don’t blame myself for loading myself up at the beginning, and I don’t regret chucking ideal after ideal as I’ve traveled. I do sometimes wish I’d realized sooner that I was making the hike harder by carrying all that weight, but that’s all part of the experience.
We moms learn as we go. As we traverse the ever-changing landscape, we figure out what to keep and what to ditch. Ideals get tossed and carrying a lighter load enables us to focus more on the scenery and the journey than the weight on our shoulders. That lightness gives us more agility, and we’re left only with the ideals that truly matter.