I haven’t used a diaper coupon since my youngest was potty trained seven years ago, and it’s been about as many years since I placed an order for Christmas stocking stuffers from Land of Nod. We’ve moved on from Pottery Barn Kids back-to-school gear and have been ordering from Pottery Barn Teen for a couple of years now. And we’ve moved twice since my kids were of the age to use formula. Still, the junk mail arrives like clockwork. Even after I call to have our names removed from their lists, they still manage to find us.
Today’s mail haul included a beautiful catalog from Land of Nod, and even though I had no reason to, I couldn’t help but hesitate and thumb through it as I held it over the open recycling bin. It was comforting to be reminded of that long-ago time when wooden blocks and playhouses shaped like rocket ships held the promise of hours of entertainment for my children—and a magazine-spread-worthy home for me.
The coupons tell me that if I buy their products my life will be easier. The catalogs tell me their products will make my life more beautiful. Both are peddling lies.
And it’s a pretty lie, don’t get me wrong. Who wouldn’t want to gaze at that perfectly decorated playroom being enjoyed by perfectly styled kids wearing Fair Isle sweaters (they’re always wearing Fair Isle sweaters) and imagine that this serene moment could occur in their own abode? Is this the real life? When I was a new parent, I kind of believed it could be.
When my son was a newborn 12 years ago, I—under the influence of intoxicating baby-head smell and sleep deprivation—paged through these catalogs and wholeheartedly accepted the happiness and security they tried to sell me. Pottery Barn Kids and Land of Nod lured me in with their coordinated nursery bedding and sturdy furniture. One Step Ahead, instead of dealing in fantasy, warned me against all the things that might harm my child. Of course the full-body UV-blocking swimsuits and disposable toilet-seat covers would ward off disaster. And the toys in the MindWare catalog, obviously, would make my kids smarter.
Now that I am a veteran parent I’m under no such illusions—and if I ever was, they quickly evaporated. I know the pristine playroom in the Pottery Barn Kids catalog is about as real as Hogwarts. My boys’ bedrooms don’t so much resemble those Land of Nod spreads, with their artisan-crafted toys tidily tucked into storage cubes, as they do the aftermath of some sort of horrific disaster at the Oriental Trading Company. We have yet to succumb to a bizarre toilet-seat disease (and, most of the time, my boys’ bathroom is more disgusting than a public restroom anyway). And their intelligence levels don’t seem to have suffered despite most of their toys coming from Target.
Sometimes the mess can’t be contained in the Pampers you bought on sale with a coupon. That Batman lunchbox and the bento-style storage containers that nestle inside sure are nice…until they accidentally get left in a backpack overnight and take on the aesthetic of a toxic waste dump. Or, worse, Mom accidentally sets fire to the lunch box while simultaneously packing lunches and cooking breakfast. Unless Pottery Barn Kids is selling a housekeeper to go along with the outrageously overpriced furniture, my home is never going to look like it belongs in a catalog.
And that’s okay. The catalog lifestyle is seductive but, ultimately, unrealistic for the vast majority of American families, my own included. Most of us can’t afford to furnish our homes with Pottery Barn and dress our kids in Hanna Andersson. That’s part of the fantasy. It’s nice to dream, but if we let it cloud our reality we’re doomed to be disappointed, because nobody can measure up to the versions of parenthood and childhood these companies are selling. They promise a beautiful life, but we don’t have to buy into their vision. Parenting—and life itself—is beautiful on its own, without all of the accoutrements that tempt us from the glossy pages of our junk mail.
Although, come on. If that sporty-yet-sexy dress from the Title Nine catalog will help me climb mountains, write a chapter of my novel, turn my husband’s head, and coach my kids’ track team, all before I go home to prepare a homemade dinner with ingredients sourced from my backyard garden, that’s a fantasy I’m still perfectly willing to buy into.
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