A Facebook memory came popping up into my newsfeed the other day that ambushed me with a big ol’ helping of Mama Guilt. It was a photo from my daughter’s birthday seven years ago of the homemade cake I made with frosting flowers I created myself, all 50 of them in yellow, pink, and white.
When the photo from the past came up, my first reaction was, “Man, I suck,” because seven years later, I’m not making time for crafty feats such as this. A caffeinated, shaky handwritten note on her lunch napkin is as close to crafty as I get these days.
And to be honest, I have no idea how I had time for things like this back then either. The truth is, I actually didn’t. I was working full time, had a four- and one-year-old, and worked an opposite schedule from their dad, so I was going it alone with no family living anywhere nearby to help and no close friends since we had recently moved to a new state.
I remember setting my alarm for 4:00 a.m. a few mornings to first teach myself how to make frosting flowers and then to make the cake from scratch and get it decorated. I wanted that cake to be perfect, so she could know how much I loved her after pouring so much of myself into such a huge project.
I wanted to show her and all the grandparents and family who would be at the party that I could, in fact, juggle it all and still not lose my mind.
Seven years later, I know what a load of self-defeating crap that is.
I can’t juggle it all and keep it together, which is why I now live more realistically, rooted in honesty and imperfection that gives me room to breathe and does not include waking up at 4:00 a.m. to obsess over YouTube videos that teach me how to decorate a cake because I want oohs and aaahs from the crowd at the self-destructive behavior of running myself into the ground without complaint.
This year for her 11th birthday there were no perfectly made frosting flowers to defensively show the world that I’ve got my act together to hide the fact that I don’t have my act together. This year I asked her what she wanted, and she said she would like some clothes from Target.
“No cake?” I asked.
“Nah. I don’t even like cake,” she answered.
This, I could handle.
So I told her she and I would go to Target together, and she could pick something out. I watched her move indecisively from clothing rack to clothing rack, chewing on her bottom lip with a furrowed brow. She quickly said, “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m taking so long to decide.”
I struggle with running low on patience, and there are few things in this world I hate more than shopping, but that day I exhaled, “Take your time, my sweet birdie. This is your day, and I want you to pick out something you love. It’s all about you today.”
The look on her face reaffirmed this small, easy gift of time and focus was exactly what she needed. Obsessing over her cake when she was four was, in fact, all about me.
As a parent, I sometimes assume I have to go big to show my love, but time and time again, I’m reminded it’s the quiet, subtle acts of connection that go farther than any Pinterest-worthy, glittery gesture.
As I sat outside the dressing room, I watched her feet under the door slipping into summer skirts and shorts as she hummed along to the pop song playing overhead that I had never heard before, but she seemed to know by heart. She stuck her head out from time to time with a confidence on her face that isn’t always there in this awkward growing stage in her life.
She kept thanking me as we walked to the car, and she changed into her new clothes right away in the backseat. As I turned to see her, I realized that photo of her cake seven years ago no longer makes me feel guilty. I know now the cake was more for me than her.
She’s grown a lot since then, and so have I, thank goodness.
I’ve learned parenting is much harder when I try to put on a show and keep up with others. When I tap into who I truly am and what my kids need from me instead of assuming what they need, I show up fully — and showing up and seeing my kids completely is the gift I want to give every year.
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