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Book excerpt: 'Bay and Her Boys: Unexpected Lessons I Learned as a Single Mom'

Published: Thursday, July 12 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Bay Buchanan, former U.S. Treasurer and political adviser, talks about raising her sons as a single parent in her book, Bay Buchanan, former U.S. Treasurer and political adviser, talks about raising her sons as a single parent in her book, "Bay and Her Boys." In sharing her story, she wants to give hope to other single parents. (Da Capo Press)

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?

I called off the war, but I still cared. To keep my sanity I stayed clear of their rooms. It was the "what I don't see can't bother me" approach. For the most part we had a truce. Stuart was the worst — every square inch of his floor was covered — parts with several layers. When I needed to put clothes away, I made him give me a path to the dresser. He always obliged by moving his arm in a sweeping motion back and forth across the floor. I took Lamaze-like-breaths as I entered the room and kept my focus on the dresser. This lasted for years. One day I will have to apologize to his wife.

If truth be known, I became a better mom when I became a single parent. I no longer put unnecessary pressure on my kids or myself. I stopped caring what other families had or other people thought. My circumstances were different from theirs, and I had to make decisions according to what worked for us. I didn't need anyone else's approval — and I didn't seek it.

But when someone looked askance or made a comment, I turned into the Mama Bear.

In our Virginia home we had a self-designated Neighborhood Dad who was determined to get into my boys' business. He would catch them doing something he thought wrong, like throwing rocks through the windows of the partially built new homes in the neighborhood, and haul them home to me. Then he would ask what I was going to do to punish them. Well, that was information he was never going to get. It was a family matter, between my kids and me. I would assure him I'd get to the bottom of the problem, and then turn to the boys — and their friends — and tell them to go into the house. Once out of earshot of the nosy neighbor I'd get their side of the story and take whatever action I deemed appropriate. My first impulse was to have the boys egg the man's house. (And, by the way, the kids explained they were only throwing rocks at the already broken windows. It is possible, you know.)

This man believed my kids were juvenile delinquents, and that I was the permissive, clueless single mom. He underestimated us all, but I decided he could think what he wanted. The boys were my responsibility, and I wasn't sharing that job with the likes of him. My family was in order — I knew that — no matter how it looked from the outside.

No justification, no explanation, no rationalization — not to anyone. I only cared about the kids. Were they healthy and happy? Did they feel secure and confident? Were they respectful? Did they feel loved? And were they at least moving in the direction of well behaved? That is what mattered. And I could do that. I could make certain my kids had a solid foundation for a good life.

I had to pick what was important for my family, and you have to do the same for yours. No one else can do it for you. There are lots of good and commendable standards, but they're not all essential. Don't be afraid to toss some overboard — no matter if it's what your mom did or your best friend does or what your former self planned on doing. You can't do it all — and if you want to succeed as a single parent, you best not try.

The first step is to examine your expectations and then start chopping. Eliminate all thoughts of perfection — and while you're at it toss out "nearly perfect" as well. It doesn't exist in our world. You need a new game plan, an updated, streamlined version, one that works realistically for you and your kids. Keep only what matters most, and get rid of the rest. After a few months repeat this step, and keep cutting until you have found the right balance for your family.

For me it came down to a simple choice: time with my boys or racing around trying to keep up with the Joneses. Unrealistic standards were downright stupid when put into this context. Time with the kids was too short as it was; I needed to make what little I had work for us as best I could.

Good parenting is all about eliminating extraneous demands on your time and energy so you can give your kids what they need the most — security, a sense of belonging, a good family and a life full of love and fun. Don't worry if your home isn't as tidy as your sister's or if your kids aren't enjoying homemade meals like your mom's. This is your family — you have to make tough decisions for your kids' sake. It's what parenting demands.

And remember: being smart doesn't have guilt as a side effect. So forget about carrying any of that poisonous stuff along with you for this ride.

Simplify Your Life

A good friend, who had three boys as well, told me she only bought white sports socks, the same brand every time. After doing the wash she threw all socks into the "sock box" — no pairing necessary. When the kids needed socks they would go to the box and pick out two. She knew they would match. I asked her what she did about dark socks for dress? She said white worked fine. Her boys went to college never having worn anything but white athletic socks. She had saved herself hundreds of hours of matching and folding socks. It was brilliant.

Unfortunately, I heard this little nugget too late to implement in my own home. After years of going barefoot, Tommy developed a heightened sense of touch and became particular about the socks he wore. Because I was unable to figure any of this out myself, I had to take him to different stores, where he would put his hand inside dozens of socks and usually reject them. "They have to feel right," he would say, "or I can't wear them." I hope he has a kid just like him.

But I did pick up some valuable hours when I abandoned my mother's incredibly high standard for homemade dinners. She was an amazing cook and an even more impressive baker. When I think about my childhood, I remember coming down the stairs in the mornings to one of my favorite hot breakfasts. A cake or a couple pies would already be in the oven, and on the counter sat eight to ten lunch bags, packed with thick meaty sandwiches, potato chips, and homemade cookies, brownies, or a large piece of triple-decker chocolate cake. On Fridays, lunch was tuna fish sandwiches along with all the goodies. One of my brothers would sometimes ask Mom for an extra dessert so he could trade up or sell it. (He became a lawyer.)

I made it easy for Mom — no sandwich Monday through Thursday, just peanut butter crackers. Tuna worked fine for Fridays. Even though our names were on the brown paper bags, I would still occasionally get the wrong one. Don't know how, as the boys' lunches weighed in at about five pounds. But when it happened, I would open the bag at lunchtime and gag. I couldn't even look at the monstrous sandwich. But I wasn't worried. I knew somewhere in the school one of my brothers was staring at peanut butter crackers — he'd be around shortly.

Mom fed 11 mouths once again at dinner, and every night we ate a balanced meal: meat, potatoes or rice, vegetables, bread and a homemade dessert. We never had pizza. There was no way I could match her. As fine a tradition as it was, and as great as it would have been for my boys, I couldn't manage it most of the time — not even with only a third the kids.

Instead I did take a few of her recipes and treated my kids to them regularly. I learned to make her spaghetti sauce, for instance, and would make a double batch — we would eat it for lunch or dinner for days. And like Mom, I loved to bake, so homemade cookies were a common sight in our home. But so were mac 'n' cheese, Spaghetti-Os, and pizza. I would make the boys drink a glass of milk with these meals to calm my conscience.

Once, a friend told me Wednesday was pancake night in her home. What a terrific idea, I thought — simple and easy. I tried it. My kids balked, "This is breakfast food, Mom. Where is dinner?" So I got out the Hot Pockets — they were easier than pancakes anyhow.

Did I feel good about this radical drop in standards from my parent's home? No. But I was a single mom, and I had to find the time to be a good one. So I simplified my life every way I could. It's why I let the boys dress themselves — one less thing on my list. Admittedly this came with a painful adjustment. I liked a clean, sharp look and they couldn't have cared less; comfort was all that mattered to them. Every couple days I'd make certain the clothes on the floor (the boys never used hampers — another guy thing, I think) were washed. Then for school, church and special occasions I required a higher standard — collared shirts and long pants. Pressed and spotless? Not so much.

Much to my amazement, my boys all eventually became remarkably good dressers. So the only damage was to my pride. At times, I was downright embarrassed at how they looked. But I learned not to care. Instead I would laugh — at their clothes and at myself. It really was amusing if you looked at it in the right light.

Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books.

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