In preparation for Halloween, I didn’t wonder if this would be the year I finally learn how to use a sewing machine. I didn’t visit the craft store, hoping to be hit with creative inspiration as I stood in the aisles staring at rows of feathers and beads, felt and pipe cleaners. When I asked my kids what they wanted to be for Halloween, I had no secret agenda for them to pick something that seemed easy to throw together from brilliantly repurposed items.
Instead, giddy with freedom and happiness, I put the kids in the car and we headed straight for the second-hand shop to buy costumes.
Store-bought costumes are the eventual outcome in my house every year. So what made this year different? These days, I no longer harbor a shred of illusion about magically becoming the kind of mom who makes creative homemade Halloween costumes happen. That mom lives and thrives in other women, but not in me. She’s not in there waiting to blossom. And that’s okay.
There’s plenty we can all agree we should do for our kids, like feed them, show them love and affection, read to them, and teach them to do the right thing in various situations. What about the other, nonessential things we pressure ourselves to do and be for our kids? Not the stuff we’re already good at or genuinely want to learn, but the things we’ve assumed or convinced ourselves we should be doing. What if we could let those things go and simply be who we are as people within the context of parenting? How much happier would the whole family be?
You know the mom I was sure I could morph into with a little time and effort. She's the one who spends joyful afternoons with her kids, creating dolls made of acorns and birch bark and wool felt. The one who thrives on the challenge of taking her kids’ Halloween ideas and whipping them into works of fabulous costume art – all while involving the children in the most nurturing and enriching ways. If not the one on the cover of books filled with fun and “simple” family crafting projects, at least the one who actually uses said books instead of just buying them.
Gradually, I figured out I can stand in awe and admiration of these moms without wishing to be them. And I’m a lot happier for it.
My kids are better off as well. I doubt they’ve suffered any major psychological scars from my past yearnings for joyful craftiness. But my attitude may have put a bit of a damper on their second favorite holiday.
Because of my nagging feeling that there was something I should be doing, but in all likelihood was about to fall short of (again), I approached Halloween with an air of uptight crankiness and dissatisfaction. Having dropped this baggage, I can approach it with excitement and focus on having fun with my kids. And they’re as thrilled as they’ve always been with their store-bought costumes.
In discussing this with friends, it turns out I wasn’t the only one putting this kind of pressure on myself. My friend Jody said, “I have yet to fully allow myself to accept not being that mom. Every year I vow to make a homemade costume – and end up getting something at the mall. Thanks for telling me it's okay.”
Bernadette, who is an artist but chooses to spend her time and energy on other projects, said, “I can't tell you the relief I feel when we buy the costume.” (And on the flip side, I got an offer of services from a joyfully crafty mama friend, should I ever want to commission fabulous homemade costumes.)
Of course, sometimes a desire to learn a new skill or “try on” a new way of being is genuine. Stretching our comfort zones may not always be a comfortable process, but can be worthwhile for the parent and good modeling for the child. We grew a vegetable garden for the first time last summer, and while the learning curve was a little steep at times, it was something I truly wanted to do with my family. Here at the end of our second season, it’s becoming a tradition we love.
The trick is distinguishing between those things that call to us from within, and those that originate from an external ideal we’ve adopted without questioning whether it fits us.
I wanted some input from a parenting expert, so I consulted Dr. Shefali Tsabary, psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of "The Conscious Parent" and "The Awakened Family." I asked her what effects she's observed when parents try to live up to certain ideals or typologies that don’t match up to who they are as people. Here’s what she had to say over email:
“When we try to live up to an unrealistic fantasy of who we ‘should’ be versus who we actually are, we live in an inauthentic manner which creates a conflict within our inner psyche. As we are ‘pretending’ to be someone we are not truly, simply to gain the approval and adoration of those around us, we strive for something that is highly dependent on external sources. When these sources fail to provide us with the approval that we are so desperately seeking, we inevitably feel cheated on some level, and even betrayed. It is only when we shift to realize that our source of worth can only come from a source deep within us that we will be able to live a life of fulfillment and true purpose.”
And what about the effects on our kids?
“We impose these unrealistic expectations and fantasies on our children and burden them with the pressure to fulfill them. When they don’t live up to our fantasies of them, we make them feel as if they have disappointed and failed us.”
No doubt there will be other parenting challenges to which this wisdom applies. Come to think of it, this applies to plenty of other situations outside of parenting. How many ways do people, and perhaps women especially, waste our energy and dampen our spirits by struggling to fit ideals that have little to do with our true selves?
Now, when I encourage my kids to “be yourself,” I have a little more authoritative experience behind that advice. What a relief to know that simply being who we are is not only better for us as human beings, but better for our kids as well.
As for that lovely book of “simple” crafting projects with the beautifully crafty family on the cover? I put it in the library donation box. Here’s to hoping the mom who finds it actually wants to use it.