You know the meme, “How to be a mom in 2019,” right? The one that says all the things you’re supposed to do, but can’t possibly do because what kind of human can be all things to all people in all the right ways at exactly the right time all the time. That feeling is just the worst– when you know all the things that some proverbial mother out there is doing perfectly for her well-adjusted, appropriately-nurtured-but-not-smothered children, while you struggle to fit all the frozen chicken nuggets and frozen french fries onto the same pan so they can come out of the oven at the same time. I hate that feeling. The one that says “I’m doing this wrong.” Or worse: “I’m going to ruin my children by doing it this way.”
I get that feeling a lot. And I do a lot of those How to…2019 things. So I felt like I needed a reminder, and maybe you need one too, that you can be a good parent, no- a great parent, without 800 Pinterest-worthy projects and without keeping your home and yourself instagram-ready. You can create magic, for your children and for your spouse/significant other, without carving a 25th hour out of the day, and without quitting your job or becoming a slave to perfect-family-life-curation.
When I was growing up, my dad owned his own small business. It was a gas company, and that company required a tremendous amount of his time and effort. If truck drivers were out sick, he was driving routes. If customers had no heat in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, my dad was out fixing a gas line. We didn’t go on vacations, and we didn’t spend a lot of time away from home in general. My mom tells of the long hours and how hard those days were on her too (not lost on me, now in my own throes of motherhood with a hardworking spouse), but truthfully, I have no memories of my dad being absent. I do remember him laying in my bed with me at bedtime to hear about my day and say my prayers and tell me one ridiculous joke or story after another.
Our life was simple- we didn’t have memberships to the zoo (our small town was 2 hours away from the closest one) and we didn’t play tons of sports, but we had fun where we were. There was a potting shed in our backyard that my dad built for my mom- it had two bays with double swinging doors- one that stored his riding lawnmower, and one that had my mom’s potting bench and all her supplies. There was a gravel floor, and it was perfect for pretending. I can remember reading Princess Furball (an absolute gem) and then acting it out in that shed over and over again. My mother loved gardening, and our backyard, deck, and porches were always covered with beautiful flowers and potted plants. I’d pretend I lived in a tropical rainforest, or inside, surrounded by her houseplants, I would transport myself to a conservatory in some sophisticated high society home. I’d take quilts outside with all my dolls and have tea parties, surrounded by all those flowers, and feel like I was whisked off to Wonderland. It wasn’t curated, and it wasn’t sparked by all-wooden toys or Montessori-inspired materials, but it was magical.
I can also remember weekends at my cousin’s house, when my Uncle Marc, decked out in his tool belt full of cleaning supplies and the central vac system running full blast, would play Sam Cooke and Manhattan Transfer 45s on their turntable, and my cousin Logan and I would dance and sing and be transported to another age. We’d laugh hysterically at the new recipes her mom would try (laugh then- now I wish I’d savored that Vidalia Onion pie a little longer), and we’d play in mountains of dress-ups in her basement. There were instruments down there, and we’d sing karaoke and try our hand at all sorts of music-making- which would become lifelong loves for us both. We also put on tapes and danced in our roller blades to songs by Ace of Base (don’t laugh- you know you did this too), we built forts in the woods, and we came up with more absurd make believe games than you could possibly imagine. Our parents weren’t crafting all these experiences for us, and they seem pretty ridiculous now. But, then, they were magical.
When I was a single mom, I wasn’t making magic happen for my children. I was too exhausted. It was all I could do to get frozen fish sticks into the oven and get boxed mac and cheese and canned green beans on the table every night. (No, really, every. single. night.) I wanted to do magical things, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy. But when I sat down to talk to my girls about what they remembered from those days, they surprised me. “Oh Mom! Remember how you used to read Mouse Gets Caught? And you’d do the voices and make the faces? Ohmygosh that was so great. I just love that story. It’s hilarious.” I read the same story every night until my big girl fell asleep in her bed. I read it because she wouldn’t ever let me skip pages in any book, and that was a book from my own childhood that brought me happy memories. I didn’t mind reading every single page, because I remembered my dad reading it to me and doing the funny voices, too. It’s funny how magic begets magic- even if we don’t know it. My girls didn’t always get the best version of me- I felt like I gave that away to my employer in those days. But they still remember the best version of me from the times I did give it to them- enough to have erased the less than perfect days. The days that I put sprinkles on their yogurt or let them wear their princess dresses to the grocery store seemed to erase the days when I fell asleep in their beds or fed them microwave popcorn for dinner. Somehow, that little bit of magic was enough.
The same goes for dating your spouse. I hear people talk about dating your spouse all the time, and I know it’s important. I know you have to invest in the relationship. But you guys, when you have 5 kids and a home renovation that blew past your budget, a date that requires a babysitter is expensive. And a babysitter who’s willing to watch this wild crew for what I’m willing to pay is hard to come by. So I focus less on the date side and more on the spouse side. Because you can create magic for your spouse without a lot of effort. In the early days of dating my husband, he managed a retail store 2 hours away from me. After closing his store, he’d hit the road for my house at 11pm, knowing we could have the entire next day together. He’d pick up Krispy Kreme donuts, and I’d put Totino’s pizza rolls in the oven, and we’d stay up late eating junk food on my living room floor (because my couch at the time was in such bad shape, you’d basically sink to the floor if you sat on it anyway).
Now we don’t have to work so hard to get in the same place as one another, but the scenery is different. It’s hard for me to show just how thankful I am for how he gets up during the night with the baby, or how he has managed to never pay a bill late in nearly 10 years of being together. But I can put a Pepsi and his favorite biscuits in the fridge for him. I can make sure his favorite meal finds its way into our rotation on a regular basis. And we can still eat junk food together while we stay up late talking or watching football (only this time on a nicer couch). He gives me reprieves by taking the kids with him on errands, or having them get out and work in the yard with him, and I reward him with endless chips and salsa and listening to recordings of his calls to his favorite sports talk radio show. It’s not much, but for us, it’s magical.
So here are a few of my suggestions for making little bits of magic in your home, without the help of Pinterest or any otherwise-well-intentioned mom blogger:
- Turn on your favorite tunes from high school while you fold laundry, and invite your kiddos to match the socks. Mine love hearing what Mom listened to “in the olden days.” Tell them funny stories from your high school days- what you liked, what you were like, who your friends were, your favorite memories.
- Speed clean your house as fast as you possibly can. This one comes from my dear friend, Kristin. Turn the music up to blasting, and go balls-to-the-wall crazy getting things put away. It’s hilarious, and your kids want to see you be silly and ridiculous. This is a roaring success in my house.
- Read, read, read. But read something that interests you. Remember that picture book that you see and it instantly takes you back to happy memories? Read that with your kids. My girls are reading my old Babysitter’s Club books now, and they have my mom’s old Nancy Drew books that were mine as a girl, too. Don’t try to force something that isn’t working for either of you- that’s not magic, it’s work, and you already have enough of it.
- Food can be fun. A can of whipped cream turns a toaster waffle into a celebration. Sprinkles on yogurt, a ketchup smily face for french fries, or green eggs (the secret is blue food coloring) are so simple, but they make a small thing a fun thing. Lighting candles at the table is another easy little thing that makes dinnertime a bit more magical. (Seriously. Put Reddi-Whip and votive candles on your grocery list.)
- Let them pick the dinner sometimes. I don’t mean fish sticks. My boys would feed us all jamwiches and cold hot dogs if I let them be our little chefs, but some days that makes dinner fun. And we can survive anything for one night. They always remember when they get to be “in charge” of what we do.
- Eat outside. Not the beautiful Pottery Barn, “why can’t we all just live in The Hamptons” way, but in the “let’s take these paper plates outside and eat while the sun is shining” way. A change of scenery can be magical.
- Play music in the background. The stuff you like. And then the stuff they like. Take turns. Teach them to love MJ or Oasis or NWA or whatever’s your jam. Or if you’re me and you just want Beethoven, that’s okay too. Play music while you wash dishes, empty the cat litter, take out the garbage, put away the groceries. Let the kids sing along with you, and let them get half the words wrong. It’s more fun that way.
- Keep fun things around. We play lots of games- card games, board games, you name it. We have one- No Stress Chess- which never seems to live up to its name. My kids love it, but somehow they all cry and stress us out when we play. So that one stays put up high. The UNO cards, though? Those are in the drawer right by the kitchen table so we can play it any time. Same goes for play dough, dress-ups, and army men.
- Do an occasional Q&A to see what everybody likes. Interests change. I definitely don’t have the same appreciation for The Jersey Shore that I had when Mike and I were dating. It’s okay to change things up.
Most of all- you do you. It’s hard being an adult. It’s hard being responsible for other people. It’s hard trying to get it all right, all the time. But you’re a person, and you’re allowed to have fun- and your family probably wants to see you having fun. And I’m positive they want to have fun with you. Don’t overcomplicate it. Find the magic in the mundane- it’s there. And it doesn’t take as much work as you think it does.