Family life is messy.
Legos and leftovers, fatigue and forgetfulness, cats and caterpillars, birthdays and clean-up afterwards–everything is moving (except the dishes left on the table, which are definitely not moving). Still, we try.
For the decades needed to raise five kids born fairly close together, I was determined to be a good mother in all the ways I understood to be good. I cultivated a growing collection of tools, strategies and plans for keeping a family running like a minivan (because I didn’t have any well-oiled machines). Looking back, however, I wish I had done some things differently.
This list shouldn’t read like my parental walk of shame. I did my best at the time, and sometimes my best said to me, inexplicably, “you need to make more cookies.” (I did not need to make more cookies.) Neither should this list read like a menu of behaviors to avoid, necessarily. Family life is too unique for a one-size-fits-all manual. Each child changed the dynamic in a richer way and we all had to stretch, physically and materially, to accommodate the new.
But if I could, this is what I would say to my younger mother-self:
1. You don’t need to buy so many toys.
Wish lists change but plastic is forever. Holiday and birthday bounty set the bar for future gift-giving, and toy clutter will take over any living space. Choose carefully, both what you buy and where you buy it. I could have filled a personal landfill with cardboard and packaging for some of this stuff.
2. Consider taking a few more pictures and videos.
There is a middle ground between spending so much time documenting childhood that you live behind a media device, and remembering to take enough photos to capture some of that tumult and sweetness. I wish I had more photos of all the kids at all ages.
3. Cleaning is good.
I am not a fan of antiseptic living environments, but I wish I had found the will and energy to pick up more often. Order is calming, and it just feels better.
4. What’s with all the cakes and cookies?
If there were no homemade cakes and cookies in the house, I was thinking about what to make next. I loved doing it, but I also linked sweet foods with big love and a happy home. Holiday baking required a minimum of 10 different kinds of cookies (who am I kidding? 10 was a slacker year—I needed 15+ types so I could cover the full spectrum of drop, rolled, shaped and bar cookies) in order to be complete. What was I thinking?
5. Stop buying more socks.
Add more socks to the basket and you’re just making a bigger pile of searchable fabric, unless…you start provisioning drawers with the same kind of sock for everybody.
6. Remember that cheap winter coats close with cheap zippers which means they won’t stay zipped for long.
I came too late to consignment shops where I later found affordable, quality kids clothing.
7. Early preparation is your friend, especially for holidays and birthdays.
Every single birthday and holiday found me wrapping gifts late the night before. I might be a bigger fan of celebrations today if I had slept occasionally.
8. Give them allowances, even in small amounts, and help them build budgets.
Some weeks we scraped by with so little margin that I couldn’t imagine adding allowances to our outgo. Those were probably the times when I should have committed to allowance monitoring so that crucial money management lessons could be learned.
9. Plant gardens.
We live on a farm—it was a dairy then—but we didn’t grow near as much food as we could have. That was a missed opportunity for fresh food, reduced grocery bills and an opportunity for kids to get eye level with good stuff happening in the dirt.
10. Teach them the constellations in the night sky and tree names; show them birds so they know who is who.
Some of them wanted to know these things as they grew and have learned this on their own, but I wish we had spent more days and nights in the yard, on a blanket, looking up.
11. Take a vacation. Every year.
I can count on one hand all the family vacations we took. Work and money issues prevented most travel but we should have at least pitched a tent in a back field and toasted marshmallows over a campfire, even if just for a long weekend. An inner shift and a family group reboot happens when you leave the house and experience something new. I wish I had tried harder to make that happen.
12. Discipline is necessary, but so are tools for coping with distress.
I wish I had known about mindfulness so I could give the kids (and me) a toolkit for dealing with conflict and frustration. To live in a family is to feel everything, or so it seemed some days, and mindfulness practices could have been as helpful then as a sail is useful to a boat.
13. When their bodies are unwell, you have choices.
We had the three-day rule for ordinary ailments: give it three days to run its course and if it’s not better, call a doctor. That worked fine, they now trust their bodies to work through health’s interruptions, but they don’t practice much self-care. I think I would now trade their learned stoicism for more nurturing. I would replace “oh, you’re fine,” with “more tea?”
14. When your teenagers’ hearts are broken, notice that you also have work to do.
When new loves entered the family, my heart opened too. When those loves ended, I also grieved. My own sorrow did nothing to help the kids’ healing and transition from loss. I wish I had noticed that my distress needed my own attention so I didn’t leak like a cracked mug full of salty disappointment. The kids had it hard enough without their mother being mopey too. I’m embarrassed.
15. Just because they have been invited to join another theatre class, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
A little music and dancing, or sports, or whatever captured the interest of each child was a wonderful thing, but I didn’t need to follow every opportunity. I am profoundly grateful for the teachers and mentors who taught so much so well, but in other instances I spent our finite time and resources imprudently.
16. Hardwood floors are fun for skimming in stocking feet, but using a pillow for sliding belly flops will put somebody in the emergency room.
So will riding walkers down basement stairs. And so will bouncing around on a metal toy car that wasn’t made for riding. Yeah, all that happened.
17. Hug them more.
“You don’t hug much, do you Mom?” One of my daughters said this to me recently and I was shocked. Cuddling kids is one of the sweetest and most necessary parts of early and middle childhood, but I think I pulled away as they got older. I thought that’s what they wanted. It wasn’t.
18. Keep in mind how their need for parenting changes in college.
I was so determined not to be a helicopter parent and to allow the growth that comes only from emerging freedoms that I probably pulled away too fast, too soon. I could have sent more care packages when they went to college and traveled to other continents. I should have called more often. I thought they wanted space. They didn’t.
19. Spend time alone with each child.
The harder it is to find time alone with each kid, the more important it might be. Cultivating a big family turned into group-work some of the time, and it was too easy to overlook that those small persons were also singular, whole, unique human beings who might have benefited with more time alone with parents. Even a trip to the grocery store with one kid at a time would have allowed space for this.
20. Stand up for yourself. What behavior are you modeling?
Too often I modeled endurance. Perhaps there was another way to navigate those challenges.
As tired as I was, as stretched thin and as overwhelmed, I always had a present moment to breathe, pray, calm, and notice. I wish I had noticed this more often.
After sharing the list of things I’d do differently, I’d also grab hold of my younger mother-self and give her hot tea and bear hugs. I’d put warm socks on her feet because she likes those. I’d help that surfer girl step off (just for a moment) the longboard on which she has been negotiating change every day, and wipe the damp hair out of her eyes. You did okay, mama.
What parenting choices do you wish you could do over?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons