Imagine this if you will: three beautiful children sitting under a Christmas tree straight out of Home Decor, opening presents wrapped in silver and gold origami artwork, tied up with teensy lace ribbons and bows. It was a carefully constructed attempt at a Norman Rockwell Christmas. My mother watched as my children opened the “mommy and daddy,” presents that had been carefully placed under the Christmas Tree in the living room. The “mommy and daddy” gift reveal is the precursor to opening “Santa gifts” in the family room under the “family tree.” The children “oohed and aahed,” over the gifts that we pulled one by one from under what has been affectionately named the “OCD Christmas Tree.”
We didn’t start as one of those families with a formal tree and a family tree, but as the kids grew more ambitious and creative with their tree decorations three years ago, they also grew frustrated by me relocating the ornaments, so as to achieve color balance and size proportion. Small balls needed to be placed near bigger balls, and there was no way were we putting three snoopy ornaments on one branch. Clearly my idea of the great tree differed from theirs.
My husband, in a rare fit of frustration, drove to the tree farm and bought a “perfect tree,” brought it home, placed it in the living room, broke out the Martha Stewart guide to lighting a tree, and told me that I could do whatever I wanted on that tree, but to let the family enjoy our family tree. And so began the OCD tree. And it was spectacular. It was perfectly symetrical, covered with carefully selected ornaments in pretty shades of silver and white. Huge white, feathered poofs dangled from heavy branches and small glass balls and glittery ornaments were scattered in between to catch and reflect the light “just so.”
My mother watched this scene unfold, looked on as my kids opened these ornately wrapped gifts, gold sparkly boxes wrapped with silver bows, and asked me “how do you expect these kids to be able to enjoy real life when you have created such a perfect world for them?” It was Christmas morning and I was exhausted, because creating a perfect holiday is hard work, and I wasn’t really prepared to receive this message at the crack of dawn, as I guzzled the first of what would probably be ten mugs of coffee. But she was right. And day after day as I parent, I wonder, what is the gain from trying to make their world perfect.
Some might argue that Christmas is the exception, it’s supposed to be magical. But let’s be honest, Christmas is magical without a perfect tree and Martha Stewart meets GOOP wrapped gifts. More importantly, when we take this pursuit of perfectionism past Christmas, and into our daily lives we set our children up for a let-down as they enter adulthood. We create false expectations of the real world, which is decidedly imperfect. Don’t believe me? I think another presidential debate is on soon. By clinging to our goal of perfect parenting, we sometimes forget that the best lessons are learned when life shows us its grizzliest side. How much can any child, or adult, learn when life is perfect?
This year my middle son looked at me one morning, when I opened the ninety-fifth email from his school that day (at, may I add, 8 o’clock AM) and was devastated when I told him choir was at the same time as his riding lesson and so he could not do both, on top of his piano, swimming, rowing, and band. He was crushed, and I was consumed with guilt. I told some friends what was eating me and they kindly came up with all sorts of suggestions: I could change riding (no I also take my daughter and her friend), I could send him to after care after choir and let my daughter and friend ride Tuesday and rearrange another day of our family’s chaotic ride so he could ride and do choir (capital NO).
I responded that, obviously I wanted to let him try all the activities his little heart desires, but he is one of three kids, in a family with a father who is at work a LOT, and one of three kids in a family with four pets. One pet is a puppy and still requires work. One pet is a Giant Schnauzer who might as well be a pack of bulls running in Madrid, for all the work that she creates. At the end of the day he would have to realize that we can’t always get what we want. More importantly I had to realize that my job is a mother isn’t to make his life as perfect as I can. My job is to prepare him as well as I can for a very imperfect world.
Real life requires making hard choices. Growing up requires a skill set beyond being driven around in the back of a luxury SUV from one enrichment activity to the next. Functioning as a young adult and as an adult means being able to roll with the punches. But what if you never get punched? What if life is so perfect that you crack up the first time things don’t go your way?
I had a heart to heart with the kids that afternoon. I explained that we are a team. We are a team who wants to support each other and that means sacrifices. That’s life. And our life also requires that they help me mud wrestle the dogs when we get home before they do their homework, not because the dogs are more important, but because in real life, sometimes you have to clean shit up, and then still have the fortitude to continue on with your homework when you are tired. Because we don’t get to stop working when we are tired or when things are tough.
I spent some time decluttering the kitchen last weekend, and as I tossed away all of the Pottery Barn Bento lunch boxes that we never used, I sighed a relief for their future friends, wives, partners and chefs who would never be expected to prepare a pinterest meal for my kids. I never mastered the perfect lunch, sushi style sandwiches with sashimi cantaloupe. But I do stick little “love sticky notes,” in their backpacks whenever I can manage it. Because at the end of the day, “I love you,” matters so much more than perfect.