I sat on a bench at our local playground, waving briefly at my five-year-old as I pulled out my iPhone to browse Instagram. Between “likes,” I noticed a mom across the playground from me. “Wheeeee!'” she yelled exuberantly as she pushed her toddler on the swing. “Should we try the slide now? Let’s pretend to be pirates! Argh!” Her toddler giggled as the pair climbed the jungle gym and headed to the slide. I smiled to myself, because somehow over the course of seven years, I’ve morphed from that mom playing pirates with her toddlers to the mom occasionally peeking up while browsing on her phone. My kids regularly exceed the recommended two hours a day of screen time, and I sometimes count Disney Princess fruit snacks and the ketchup on Chick-Fil-A waffle fries as our servings of fruits and vegetables.
I’m not anything like the mom I once thought I would be. And yet, my life is happier than I ever imagined it would be.
When Molly, my oldest, was a baby, I was determined to do everything right. I read every parenting book from Dr. Spock to Dr. Sears. We spent the majority of our time at home—me in my sweatpants, and her in her cloth-diapered butt and a onesie. I fed her pureed organic sweet potatoes and breast milk, and we sang songs and read board books. Molly was an easy baby, and I loved my days at home with her, monotonous as they were. Besides the odd “Elmo’s World” segment from Sesame Street so I could take a shower, we didn’t do any screen time. If I wasn’t on the ground interacting with her, I felt like I wasn’t doing my job. I didn’t exactly snub the moms at the playground sitting on the park benches, but I secretly felt like I was a better mom.
My evolution began when Sadie, Baby #2, came along two years later. Although I kept trying to breastfeed and make my own fruit and veggie purees, Sadie was a more difficult baby. Her preferred way of sleeping was in 45-minute spurts all day and all night long—unless, of course, I was holding her. As much as I would have preferred to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” it’s hard to sleep during the day when you have a two-year-old and a traveling spouse. The extreme lack of sleep caused my rheumatoid arthritis to flare, and I could barely walk to Sadie’s room every night or pick up either kid. My rheumatologist said that the only medicine that would provide relief was an injection that I could only take if I stopped breastfeeding. I was heartbroken, but I switched to formula. Suddenly everything was so much better. I felt better, and Sadie slept better because the formula seemed to fill her up more than breastmilk. My husband could feed her, which helped them bond and let me spend some time with Molly. Life improved overnight.
Slowly, I realized that the “right” thing wasn’t always “right” for my family. I began to let go of some of the rules and regulations I had imposed on myself. I didn’t HAVE to cloth diaper. I didn’t HAVE to limit their screen time to 15-minute spurts here and there. Sesame Street could fill in as a babysitter when I needed a shower, or a cup of coffee that wasn’t cold, or just a break from playing with baby toys all day. It was OK to get a babysitter once a month so I could actually see my husband. As I became more relaxed, I became happier. And as I became happier, my kids became happier.
When the girls were one and three, I was getting ready to sign Molly up for preschool. “But Mommy,” she said, “I don’t want to go to preschool.” And I replied, “You know what? Then you don’t have to go.” At the time I worried she’d fall behind her peers or miss out on social interactions, but it she’s now in first grade and does great academically and socially. Sadie resisted preschool too, and now I have no doubts that she’ll do well in Kindergarten next year.
The girls are seven and five now, and we’re so far from cloth diapered, homemade baby food eaters that it’s funny. Both are obsessed with Disney films, and we’ve graduated from Sesame Street to Full House. I buy their clothes from Target and Old Navy, and I pack peanut butter sandwiches for Molly in her made-in-China, character-emblazoned lunch box. Lately we’ve even started allowing Sprite as a beverage at restaurants. So far no teeth have fallen out, and there have been no sudden surges in hyperactive behavior. Both kids are happy and healthy, and I’m so thankful for that.
It turns out life is pretty great when you’re following your own rules.