Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 "Strip Parenting Down to the Basics Cut Your Expectations" of the book "Bay and Her Boys: Unexpected Lessons I Learned as a Single Mom." Click here for an interview author Bay Buchanan.
Before I had children I would often look around at the kids at church and think how great my little ones would look one day — all decked out in their Sunday best. The girls would have pigtails with ribbons, and matching smocks. The boys would wear tough-guy hiking boots, khakis and white oxford shirts. They would be well-behaved, polite and smart-looking kids, and I would be so proud.
One Sunday, years later, I sat with my three boys at church and took inventory. These kids could have been little Irish orphans. Their clothes looked to have been retrieved from the bottom of a hamper, their socks hung loosely around their ankles, and the laces on the worn tennis shoes were barely tied. The older two pushed and shoved each other throughout the service, and when that didn't work, they threw a few punches. "Knock it off," I whispered, as I used my eyes to send a message of imminent bodily harm if they didn't obey.
Sunday school followed this service, and when I picked Billy up from his class, the teacher told me to check behind his ears. I would need a heavy cloth and strong soap, she added, to get him clean. Indignantly I took a peek — she had me nailed.
Here I was, the former treasurer of the United States, and my boys were dirty little ruffians. Forget the well-mannered, well-groomed part — just plain "clean" appeared to be above my grade level.
Before kids it all seemed so simple. In my dreams I'd put their clothes out in the morning — clean, fresh and matching, of course. Then I'd feed them a yummy, nourishing breakfast. The day would be spent in those organized activities that help children develop their talents and social skills. In the evening I'd have them brush their teeth and take baths. And then I'd read to them before bed or they'd read on their own. What was so hard about this?
I couldn't have been more clueless. Those ideals were too high for any parent. But even reasonable two-parent standards don't apply if you're raising kids alone. How could they — there's only one of you. You can't do it all, no matter how hard you try. So you have to pick the important stuff and let the rest go. Otherwise you're setting yourself up for failure.
It didn't take me long to realize that I had to cut my expectations significantly, both the ones for me and the ones for my kids. Clothes on their bodies, food in their stomachs, church on Sundays, and school on time — these were reasonable goals. Team sports used up energy, taught great lessons and reduced idle time. I kept those.
To make this new life work I had to strip parenting down to the basics — no frills or shiny shoes. The boys needed to be fed, yes, but cereal worked fine (even for dinner, when necessary). As for clothes, I was humbled by the way my kids dressed. My priorities were good manners and good grades — the boys' rooms were a mess, but I learned not to care. They might be ragamuffins, but, what the heck, they never used bad language. I couldn't fight every battle, so I picked the important ones and let the kids run free of the others.
Take clean rooms, for instance. For the first couple years I put this right near the top of my "must have" list. But as the kids grew older, the resistance became formidable. What's more, they were never going to meet my standard for cleanliness.
It was a constant battle. They did a little and called it enough. I said more, and we were back at it. I couldn't keep it up — and it was dumb to keep trying. I had to stop, and so I did — with some caustic comment like, "If you want to live in squalor, be my guest." I didn't say I was a gracious loser, did I?
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