There’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed as I’ve tried to navigate the adult world. It’s a nagging tug that follows you around your day-to-day life and grows even more pronounced on special occasions like birthdays or holidays, a little voice in your head always full of suggestions for how to not simply live your life, but create Moments — beautiful, perfect, curated social media-ready Moments.
It’s hard to be an adult. It’s hard to be a parent. It’s hard to be a mom. No matter what. No matter when. But in 2019, it’s gotten exponentially harder to do these things. And I’ve finally come to the realization that we can blame it all on Susan. Or rather the “Susan Phenomenon.”
Here’s what happened, the mythological origin story of why modern parenting has gotten so unnecessarily complicated, the reason we all have glue gun burns and raging caffeine habits. It all started with our friend, Susan, circa 2010, right at the birth of Instagram and Pinterest.
Susan is that woman, that mom. We all know a Susan. She’s an over-achiever, but makes it all look effortless. She only needs three hours of sleep a night. She is an expert in calligraphy, photography, and basic ceramics. She can embroider a pillow, sew a dress, and knit a blanket. She knows how to whittle figurines out of wood, cut glass, and use a table saw. Susan doesn’t just have a crafting table, she has an entire crafting wing of her house.
Susan has a cookie cutter for every occasion, including Arbor Day and Flag Day. She never misses a volunteer opportunity. She has a freezer full of homemade casseroles and a refrigerator full of pre-prepped nutritional and delicious meals (toddler and adult versions of course).
Susan makes everything herself, from play-dough to bath bombs to matching bridesmaid caftans. She remembers every occasion, from her first kiss with her husband to the birthday of your cat (and you better believe there will be a homemade, cat-themed cake delivered to your door every year, complete with fondant kittens and chocolate catnip).
Susan makes her kids’ Halloween costumes every year. She also hand-monograms every single Christmas and Easter outfit, each one carefully picked out and stored in tissue paper months before the actual holiday, never the night before in a rush because she completely forgot.
Susan’s children are never bored. They are always engaged in developmentally appropriate sensory play, thoughtfully running their little hands through moon sand or rainbow oats or feel frames. They don’t watch TV. Obviously, they don’t even own a television.
Susan has it down, all of it. She loves this stuff, deep down to her soul. It fulfills her. It brings her joy. She’s good at it. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I would never begrudge Susan her life’s work. That’s not the problem.
The problem, is that back in 2010, before we all knew what a Pinterest board or Instagram Story was, Susan took a liking to social media. She began to share scenes from her perfect life, and because they were so beautiful, other people started to share them. And then more people not only shared them, but tried to emulate them. On and on it went, like a giant snowball. And eight years later, we have suddenly found ourselves in a world where everyone (or at least a lot of us) feel like we need to be just like Susan. Instead of being the exception, Susan’s life has become the standard we are all supposed to attain.
It’s because of Susan that we feel the need to have gender reveal parties where we are showered with pink or blue glitter from above, or set off giant pink or blue smoke bombs, or shoot our spouses in the face with a pink or blue paint gun.
It’s because of Susan that women feel the need to ask their friends to be bridesmaids with proposals that are often more elaborate and complex (and expensive) than the actual proposal of marriage.
It’s because of Susan that we feel the need to hire professional photographers to document everything in our lives, from our pregnancies to our newborns to our second pregnancies to our second newborns to our child’s 8-month birthday. We can’t just go to Sears and get a nice little studio portrait, even if deep down we know that’s what we want. We have to throw down several hundred dollars to stroll through meadows and pretend to laugh and talk like we’re on a Barbara Walters Special.
It’s because of Susan that we can’t just buy a yellow sheet cake with vanilla frosting, order some pizzas, inflate a few balloons and have a birthday party for our kid. Thanks to Susan there has to be a theme. And we have to commit to that theme, even if it means we are going to spend hours of our lives decorating cookies to look like elephants or turning our yards into petting zoos. We can’t just give our kid a slice of cake. It has to be The Smash Cake.
So we either spend a lot of money or a lot of time baking a miniature (on theme, of course) cake, buy specific decorations for the kid’s high chair, dress them in an elaborate outfit, hire a professional photographer, all to watch a one-year-old put their face in some icing (or burst into tears because their parents have made it into such a pressurized moment that the poor thing can’t handle the stress).
It’s because of Susan that Elf on a Shelf has turned from a cute thing that some people do to a mandatory life event that will scar your child if he or she misses and basically ruins Christmas. Naturally, Susan took it up several hundred notches by planning elaborate new “tableaus” for her Elf every day that involved hours of planning and storyboarding.
Speaking of Christmas… have you ever found yourself furiously searching online for matching Christmas pajamas for your kid or rushing around to different stores a week before Christmas? Have you ever felt like the success or failure of your Christmas literally depends on your baby and your toddler wearing matching striped footies? Susan.
We can also blame Susan for those monthly baby pictures and the entire Etsy industry that has cropped up to sell creative signs to display how old the baby is. Same for pregnancy updates. Oh, and you know how everyone has to come up with a super cute and charming way to announce they’re pregnant now? One word. Susan.
Let me make clear that none of these things are bad or stupid or wrong. If you do these things because you want to do them or because you think it will make your kid happy, that’s fabulous. If planning an elaborate themed birthday party brings joy to your soul, go forth and do your thing. If taking professional photographs of your family every few months is near and dear to your heart, and you love it, and you love the result, Godspeed.
The only issue is when we do these things not because they make us happy or because we really want to do them, but because we saw that Susan did them and feel like we should too. God love Susan, because women like her do really exist. And honestly, we all have our Susan moments. We all have our things, whether it’s crafting or baking or coming up with games or taking gorgeous photos. And we should embrace those things we’re good at and that we love.
But we also should really evaluate the other stuff, the things that make us curse silently under our breath as we stab ourselves with a needle for the 10th time in an hour trying to sew a Halloween costume, or that leave us in tears as we throw away our third attempt at a homemade beluga whale cake. Sometimes you have to give yourself a pass and say: you know what, Susan may be really good at this, but I’m not. And there are alternatives that make everyone’s life easier, like going online to buy party favors, or a nice grocery store cake.
It’s okay to not be a super mom. It’s really hard, but we need to give ourselves permission to just let go of all the things we do because we feel like we should instead of because it feels right for us and our families. Let’s all just take a breath, put down the glue guns, and remember that no one is perfect. Except for Susan. Although quite frankly, we have our doubts.