It was one of those days when I was done. Just done. My husband was out of town for the week, I’d had the worst night of sleep in recent memory, had to get up extremely early for a job I didn’t like where I spent three hours outdoors in the sun in the Phoenix summer heat, and finally came home to three of (what felt like) the most difficult, pestering, nagging children in the world.
“Mom, why can’t I watch "Ninjago"? Gabe got to watch a show this morning and I didn’t!”
“Mom, can I have a brownie? Why noooooooot?”
“Mom, where did you put my shoes? Yes, you did too move them!”
You know the character Anger in the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? For an accurate image of my emotional state in that moment, you’ll need to picture him as a 35-year-old woman, mouth an open cave of rage, scorching yellow flames blowing out the top of my head. I lost it and it wasn’t pretty.
I retreated to my room to calm myself. I can do this, I reasoned. I can handle the rest of this day.
No, I can’t, my brain countered. My husband is out of town and there’s no one else I can ask to give me a break right now. I...can’t...do...this...anymore.
It was then that I came up with the idea that was either utter genius or utter rubbish: for the rest of this one day, I would allow my kids to do whatever they wanted. Let nature run its course, so to speak. I’d stay in the house, of course, to be on hand should they attempt anything truly dangerous, but other than that, for me it would be a good book, a glass of wine, and the comfort of my bed. You want to watch 10 episodes of Ninjago? Be my guest. You want that brownie? All yours, buddy. Just leave me alone.
I returned to the living room to inform my kids of the plan. My youngest, age six, initially started to cry in confusion. “You mean you’re not taking care of us anymore?” she sobbed. I assured her that I would still be her mommy and take care of her forever and always – it was just this one day that I needed a break.
My eight- and 10-year-old sons were incredulous.
“You mean we can watch as much TV as we want?”
“And we can eat whatever we want?”
“You got it. As long as you don’t ask me to help.”
They looked at each other like they'd just won the lottery. In our house, where screen-time is rigorously limited and healthy eating fastidiously enforced, it didn’t take long for them to realize I was offering a golden ticket of freedom. They asked no further questions.
So it went. I disappeared into my bedroom for some much-needed self care and left them to their own devices (checking in periodically to make sure no one was playing with matches or strangling a sibling).
I thought my plan would mean nothing but peace and rest for my stressed-out spirit. As the day wore on, though, it was fraught with an intense emotional struggle as I watched my children take me up on my offer. Guilt besieged me as my sons sat in front of the TV for five hours straight. At dinnertime, I resisted the temptation to intervene when my kids decided to eat the one thing they knew how to make: two-ingredient nachos of chips and cheese. (Though I did step in when my daughter almost microwaved hers for a cheese-incinerating 63 seconds.) I held my tongue in anguish observing my 10-year-old use a sharp knife to cut up a slippery mango for a side dish.
At the end of the day, I went to bed feeling like the worst mom ever. How could I have let my kids indulge in all the behaviors I normally ensure they avoid? What kind of mom lets her kids watch endless TV and eat chips for dinner? How could a responsible mom let a preteen use a dangerous knife?
With the perspective of time, however, my thinking about the day I let my kids do whatever they wanted has changed. In the months since, I’ve come to realize that no discernible negative aftereffects occurred. No one died from one day of bedlam. My kids are still well-behaved, “A” students. They know the iPad has to get turned off after 60 minutes. They know they have to eat their vegetables at dinner. All the guilt I felt about removing their usual limits was probably unnecessary.
Furthermore, if this is true on the acute scale of one day, perhaps it’s true in the larger sense as well. What if all the mommy guilt I feel on a regular basis is unjustified? Maybe I’m doing a lot better as a mom than I think, and the big picture is what really matters.
Parents of generations past were far less vigilant about the details of kids’ lives than we are now, and life has always gone on. I could probably stand to lighten up on some of my rules for my kids, at least some of the time. Also, seeing my children take control of their own day made me wonder if they’re more capable than I give them credit for. Why shouldn’t I let my 10-year-old learn to use a knife? If nothing else, he could contribute to the family’s greater good by helping me in the kitchen. Kids deserve a widening funnel of independence as they get older, and maybe I haven’t been offering that to mine.
We haven’t tried another “free pass” day since last summer, but it’s not out of the question. After all, what mom couldn’t use a mental health break and who knows what we all might learn? This time around I think I could let go and actually relax, as long as they don’t burn the house down with the microwaved nachos.