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In the last installment of my Bigish Family Series, I discussed how it helped me to feel less guilty when I had to say no to others needing my help or offering me new opportunities when I remembered that behind every no, there is a yes to my family. Well, this tip is related and applies to any parent out there. Whether you have one new baby or a house full of kids, you’ll be a lot happier and find more fullfillment as a mom (or dad!) if you lower your expectations. I am hesitant to even write that. I’m a perfectionist at my core, but having four kids has humbled me like nothing else. Not only do I have to accept my own limitations, but I have to also accept that having a bigger family means more noise, more clutter, and more mayhem, especially when you have children like mine who are natural, little thespians. Drama and booming, stage voices run in my family. Two out of those nine dirty kids my nana raised that I mentioned in the “grooming is overrated” post are professional entertainers, so my kids really do come by it honestly.
I have a friend who has an impeccable home. Everything is in perfect order. She also has half the number of kids and a nanny/housekeeper who comes almost daily to help. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting that it’s easier for her to keep her home in order; it may very well be more of a priority to her. I just can’t get in to the whole interior design thing in my home and while I dream of a minimalist, clutter-free existence, it’s just not happening at this point in my life or in this charming and OLD house we live in. In fact, I found I was driving myself (and probably the kids) mad by always cleaning and stressing out over every little mess. Just making sure we know where all our kids’ shoes are is a feat in and of itself. Six people living under one roof means more stuff even though my husband and I work hard to control clutter and even have a daily chore assignment dubbed “Clutter Patrol.”
Each meal means six table settings. Laundry seems to increase exponentially with each child. I used to catch up on laundry every week. A few years ago I was frustrated because I never seemed capable of “catching up” anymore. It was Mom versus Dirty Clothes, and Dirty Clothes was winning big time. Thankfully, I had another light bulb moment. I was never going to “win” the laundry race. And it didn’t matter. Sure, I needed to keep up with the pile of dirty clothes, but I didn’t need to feel like I had to catch up or like laundry was a race or a measure of my efficacy as a mother and/or homemaker. That was only leaving me feeling perpetually frustrated. The same was true for the toy and clothing flotsam. I regularly bagged items we no longer used and donated them to charity, but there was going to be a little extra sometimes just because of the simple fact we had four children, and three of them were girls who had their own shoes, jackets, and hairbrushes. Yes, we all need to work together to create an orderly, welcome home, but there were going to be more finger smudges on the walls, rogue Cheerios, and runaway socks. That just came with the territory of having more children under one roof. My dream of a House Beautiful has faded into the background. Our house doesn’t look like a museum. It looks like a home that is full – not just of stuff but of wonderful people. I try to remind myself of the people behind the extra shoes and place settings. My Type A self will probably always have to work to remind myself of the reason for the noise and bigger messes and to keep my expectations in check. We have a fuller home, and we are not in the business of managing messes or inconveniences. We are raising children.
I remember when my first child was around 15 months old and had just emptied her bookshelf for the umpteenth time. Each time she left the carnage, I’d always patiently sort through the mountain of books and place them back on the shelves in alphabetical order (OCD much?), but that day I thought to myself, “Why in the world am I wasting time organizing books that will soon be dumped back on the floor? This is so stupid.”
I’m sure you’ve all been there. You’ve done something over and over again – like you pick up your toddler’s sippy cup from the kitchen floor and hand it back to him when you know very well that he’s going to hurl it back to the floor. There’s really no point. You may be trying to restore order or keep your sanity, but it often backfires and leaves you feeling more frazzled and frustrated than ever before. Or you’ve been so consumed about how others see you that you’ve stayed up far past your bedtime to clean your house for a play date the next day. I have a good friend who asks me to please not clean before she shows up so she won’t feel so lousy about her stacks of dirty dishes. She is the best kind of friend. She helps me lower my oftentimes unrealistic expectations and just loves imperfect me.
It was stupid of me to keep putting those books on the shelf. You know what else is stupid? Trying to stay below a certain weight when I’m breastfeeding. Or keeping an exploring baby from making a mess during mealtimes. Or expecting my children to always use “inside voices.”
As I’ve grown into my mothering shoes, my desire to be a good mom many times supersedes my need for order and perfection. I let my babies smear food all over their faces. I try not to make Mass a battleground; I quietly slip away if my toddler is on the verge of a tantrum. We have cleanup time at the end of the day rather than 50 times a day, and I overlook the heaps of toys in my living room until that time arrives. That said, I do try to encourage the Montessori approach to playtime. You take out a puzzle or toy, play with it, and then return it before moving onto something else.
This doesn’t mean I don’t still have to fight my perfectionist impulses. (Nobody’s perfect. Ha. Ha.) But I’m working on giving myself – as well as my children and husband – permission to be human.
We are an imperfect lot living in an imperfect home.
One strategy that Catholic author Stephen Martin, who wrote The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation, shared with me that’s been helpful is what he calls the 80 percent rule. He explains the rule this way:
“This rule is simple: it rarely makes sense to try getting anything exactly 100 percent right, unless you’re flying an airplane or performing surgery or putting somebody in jail. Otherwise, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. And people won’t even notice the perfection you’ve achieved; they’ll be focused instead on the raving lunatic who authored that perfection.
Most of the time, 80 percent is good enough. That’s the point at which you might still retain your sanity or take a walk or remove something else from your to-do list.”
In other words, try, sure, but give yourself a break while you’re at it. Next time you’re upset with yourself for failing to live up to some unrealistic ideal, say, “Perfect schmerfect!” Lower your expectations, and you just might find more joy!