Most of us thought we’d be amazing parents—and then we had kids. Now we spend what little free time we have comparing ourselves to other parents, comparing our kids to other kids, and panicking that everyone else is nailing it except us. Between constant social media postings to conflicting advice found in parenting books, we often have no choice but to freak out. But there is another way. We all just need to calm the h*ck down.
Melanie Dale—a special needs parent, adoptive parent, in vitro parent, and reluctant cheer mom—believes we are all putting too much pressure on ourselves and our kids to be perfect. Instead, she argues, we need to take a step back so we can actually enjoy this journey called parenting.
Calm the H*ck Down is filled with stories from Melanie’s own life, as well as real-life research for learning how to lighten up about every aspect of parenting—from poopy diapers and germs to family vacations and adolescent angst. She also discusses the pressure to knock it all out of the Pinterest park, the challenge of instilling some kind of faith into your kids, and worrying about their future while still trying to live in the present.
Infused with quirky humor, profound insight, and accessible advice, Calm the H*ck Down gives you the permission to finally relax and enjoy this ridiculous thing we do called parenting.
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Chapter 1: Calm the H*ck Down: Lighten Up About Expectations 1 Calm the H*ck Down Lighten Up About Expectations
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
This is a terrible idea. This book is a broken promise because I told people I wouldn’t write a parenting book. I promised profusely it would never happen. We are a mess over here. I like to win awards and achieve stuff so I think I can safely say that I am The Number One Worst Mom ever to write a parenting book. Somebody, give me a trophy. Aren’t you excited? You will feel so good about yourself when you’re done with this thing.
I hate parenting books. It’s not their fault. It’s me. Every time I see a parenting book, I think it doesn’t apply to me because they don’t know my kids or the disturbing cesspool of my shriveled heart. I am the worst, and that shiny book could not possibly understand how truly hideous I am at this job, which seems to come so effortlessly to even the basest of human beings. Stop judging me, Book, with your easy-to-apply tips and promises that I’ll never yell again and that my children will rise up and call me blessed. No, they won’t. I just asked them.
I feel threatened by most parenting books, not because they aren’t written by fabulous parents but because I feel like they’re only applicable to rainbow-pooping unicorns who have zero issues. That’s probably not true, but I dedicate plenty of side-eye for most parenting websites and books that want to help me with my problems. I can’t tell you about the specific things my kids are dealing with because that’s their business, but in case your first response to my call to “lighten up” is to think, “If you only knew my life and what my kids were like...” or “That author can suck it,” let me assure you that you’re in good company. In addition to all the typical stuff that comes with raising humans, we have quite a bit going on in the doctors, therapists, and labels department around here. I spend a large amount of my parenting time at school meetings, therapy, doctor appointments, and waiting in line at the pharmacy, and sometimes venturing out into the world can feel almost unbearable.
The other day my husband, Alex, was like, “How can you write a book about calming down and lightening up? Look at us! Do we seem calm?”
And I shot back, “Are you kidding me? It’s because I’m practicing what I preach that I’m still here, that I can get up and face these shenanigans every day and keep going. If I wasn’t learning how to lighten up about every aspect of parenting, I would’ve left a long time ago. We are where we are precisely because I’m learning to let go of what doesn’t matter and calm the heck down.”
So, if you have some hard stuff going on in your home, solidarity. We do, too, and I don’t just mean my kid got a B+. Because they can tell their own stories someday and don’t need me airing the nitty gritty of their lives, this book isn’t an exposé about all my kids’ stuff. It’s about me parenting them. If your kid doesn’t fit the mold, if your kid is atypical, or mentally ill, or physically ill, if the needs are obvious for all to see or hidden beneath the surface, you’re welcome here.
I am tapping this out on my phone while sitting at tumbling practice because somewhere along the way I became a cheer mom. I’m also an adoptive mom, an in vitro mom, a swim mom, soccer mom, lacrosse mom, mom of a teenager, mom of some tweenagers, special needs mom, and probably a deranged mom.
I have three kids. People like to compare parenting to basketball. If you grow from two kids to three, they say, “You’ve gone from man-to-man to zone.” I love March Madness as much as any girl from Kentucky, but this metaphor doesn’t quite work, because even if you do have a partner, how often are you both on the court at the same time? I liken parenting more to juggling. You start with a ball, or two if it’s twinsies, and you toss it up and down for a while until it feels doable. Then maybe you add a ball. Then another. With each ball you add, it gets more complicated, but you eventually adjust. You add a new variable, a flaming baton or maybe a chainsaw, then you adjust to that, too. If you have a partner, when you’re together, you develop a funky routine tossing the balls back and forth. If you have enough balls, you might draw a crowd. Wow, you guys are really good at this. Like, Harlem Globetrotters good. And at the point you get cocky, someone points a tennis ball machine at your face and pummels you with balls until you’re in the fetal position on the ground begging for mercy.
My kids come from three different continents, out of birth order. Elliott was a preemie my body tried to kill in utero. Evie was adopted from Ethiopia as a toddler, Ana from Latvia as a nine-year-old, and they had lives and families before ours. My kids are awesome. Obviously, I’m proud. Of them. I, on the other hand, do not know what I’m doing. We are making it up as we go. I see a therapist because my kids’ therapist told me to and I’m very obedient, unlike my kids, who are... what are we supposed to call them now? Leaders. They have super-good leadership skills, aka they are belligerent a-holes. (If you’re reading this, kids, I assume you’ll take that as a compliment.)
I can trace my journey of calming the heck down to five moments. If I was a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these moments would make it into the montage at the beginning of my origin story, for sure.
Moment One: My stress affected my child. When I was pregnant with Elliott, after years of infertility, I wanted to make everything perfect for him. I would make all the perfect choices and research how to be the best mom ever. About halfway through, other judgy parents and too much reading freaked me out. I thought for sure I’d already screwed up my baby, and I hadn’t even met him yet, and I started sobbing uncontrollably until suddenly I felt my uterus contract. I realized that my stress level affected my physical body, and the body of the child inside me.
Moment Two: I couldn’t control what happened to my child. A couple years into our adoption process with Evie, we got some hard news and thought we might never be able to bring her home. I sat at a red light in my minivan and felt the full weight of the lack of control roll over me like a wave.
Moment Three: I didn’t know how much time we had together. The first time we met Ana, she visited us for a summer, and we fell utterly in love with her. She built forts with Evie and Elliott, her bubbly laugh filled the house, and every day was an adventure. After cuddling together and reading hours of bedtime stories, throwing her a birthday party, and developing that comfortable feeling like she’d always been here, one morning I had to put her on a plane, not knowing if I’d ever see her again. Two governments and a whole lot of people had to agree to let her come back, and we had no way of knowing how it would all turn out.
Moment Four: Parenting looked different than I’d planned. After twelve years of assembling our kids, I thought we were done with the hard part, but then we went through a season I call “Labelpalooza,” when I kept finding myself in rooms with experts telling me various diagnoses about some of my people. Sitting in an office across from a neuropsychologist while she shared her testing results with us, everything felt surreal.
Moment Five: Somewhere along the way, I’d learned to parent. Sipping coffee at a table full of young moms before I got up to speak at their event, they asked me questions, and I shared some of the ways I’ve handled things with the kids. One of the moms said, “Oh, my gosh, you’re so wise. I’m writing this down.” I looked at her, surprised, and thought, Wait, do I, like, know stuff now?
I thought that was hilarious, but as I’ve spent time with moms around the country and sipped coffee with them before they graciously allowed me to speak at their events, I’ve discovered that they’re all freaking out about parenting. And at this point, I’ve figured out how to calm down about a lot of it, not because I’m amazing, but because I’ve had to. Rocky pregnancy? Check. Scary doctor appointments? Check check. Occupational therapy? Trauma therapy? Speech therapy? Play therapy? Attachment therapy? Fill-in-the-blank therapy? English as a second language? Transracial parenting? Toddler adoption? Older child adoption? Adopting out of birth order? Special services at school? Checkity check check. I obviously don’t know anybody’s unique situation, but my parenting education on the fly has been broad and fairly thorough.
I realized through these conversations with other parents in different parts of the country that we all have something in common. We’re all freaking out and wondering if we’re doing it right. And the best and most important thing we can do for our kids is to calm the heck down.
All the challenges we’ve faced as a family gave me the beautiful gift of smashing any expectations I had going into this thing. From the get-go, as they jammed the needle into my spine before cutting me open to rescue my son six weeks early, I learned that parenting wasn’t going to turn out the way I thought. My kids keep reminding me, again and again, that they are not here to perform for me. Which pisses me off because when you look up “people pleaser” on the Googleweb, there’s a picture of me doing jazz hands asking how high you want me to jump. People pleasing got me into plenty of trouble, though, so maybe it’s better I’m raising fighters. They’ll make incredible adults if they can survive their childhoods.
After assembling our family for twelve years of scary hard work with doctors, lawyers, needles, and paperwork, sometimes my husband and I wonder out loud if there’s a way to undo it, like a reset button. What were we thinking? We’re really bad at this. Surely these wonderful kids could find better adults to raise them. Usually that’s when a caring friend says something about God giving us exactly the kids we’re supposed to have and we’re the right people for the job and God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called, but I usually zone out and think about zombies or spaceships or a spaceship filled with zombies. Ooh! Screenplay idea. Somebody write the crap out of that show because I will binge it like a bag of Doritos.
I’m concerned that the people in my real life who know me will question why I would ever try to write a parenting book. One time I spoke at a local moms’ group, and then a few weeks later I ran into one of the moms at the grocery store and she said, “Oh! That’s a lot of alcohol in your cart!” I blamed it on my husband. (Sorry, Alex.) I accidentally taught my oldest a new swear word yesterday. I never wear a bra to the bus stop. Parenting is not how I thought it would be.
The greatest achievement I’ve got going for me is that I stay. I show up every day and laugh in the face of this difficult job with no benefits or vacation days. I assume we will survive. Sometimes I call my husband on the way home from therapy and threaten to keep driving and never come back, but I come home again and again, because these people need their meds, and I’m the only one who knows where we keep the toilet paper. And shuts drawers. I’m the only drawer shutter in the whole house. I don’t understand this. If I wasn’t here, all the drawers and cabinets would stay wide open with their contents spilling out for all the world to see. So, I have job security. These little buggers need me to shut their drawers.
I also don’t know how to write a parenting book without swearing. I’ll do my best.
We need to lighten up about parenting. We take it way too seriously. Listen, I know these are people’s lives we’re playing with, but let’s all dial it down a notch or two. I mean, we made it through our childhoods relatively intact. I’m in therapy, can’t reproduce, and am admitting in a parenting book that I don’t know how to parent, but other than those small things, I’m completely fine. I’m not the only one, though, right? None of us really knows what we’re doing, and the second we think we do, our kids change like that spinning cornucopia in the seventy-fifth Hunger Games. Tick tock.
The first parenting magazine I ever read freaked me out about the danger of invisible bat bites giving our babies rabies, and the other day I listened to a mom go on for forty-five minutes about whether or not she should call her kid’s counselor... in college. From birth to empty nesting, we read too much, plan too much, engineer too much, and probably give ourselves things like ulcers and diarrhea.
We run ourselves ragged trying to be and do and give everything our kids need, and the only way to keep up this pace is if we start giving new parents Time-Turners like Hermione Granger’s in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “Congrats, Mom and Dad, on your new baby. Here’s your birth certificate and your Time-Turner to help you be two places at once for the foreseeable future. Good luck!” In the New York Times article “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller writes,
The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes in 1975—and they worry it’s not enough.1
We are out of control. And I could’ve been the worst. I’m a type A control freak who wants to raise perfect automatons to people please the heck out of everyone around them. Instead, I ended up with strong-willed kids who do what they want when they want. I’ve had to learn to let go and laugh or else they will turn on me and shove my head on a pike like in Lord of the Flies. Instead of guiding them as an orderly, nineteenth-century schoolmarm like I pictured, I’m more like a pinball machine, flicking them chaotically toward the direction I want them to head except for when they blast right by me and end up in the hole. I’ve adapted.
If you feel like parenting is devouring you, if your pressures and expectations are making you dread every day, then this book will help you lighten up. Maybe go to the doc and get some meds, too. But bring this book while you’re getting them. By the end, you’ll feel one of two things: I feel like I can lighten up about raising these kids, or At least I’m a better parent than she is. I call either of those scenarios a win.
Did anybody else think they’d be better at this? I thought we’d be better than we actually are. It seemed like we’d nail this thing when we were merely armchair parents observing others at the grocery store and restaurants. Other people’s kids would totally wig out in the produce aisle and I’d think to myself, See? When I’m a parent I’m going to include my young child in the decision-making process for dinner. I’ll let him choose what veggie he wants, and we’ll go home and cook it together. Once I became a parent, that happened one time. Every other time, I’d wheel my cart directly to the bakery for the free cookie, buying myself five minutes of cookie gnawing to race around the store throwing food in my cart like that lady on the shopping sweepstakes before my kid would wiggle out of the seat belt and start grabbing things from the shelves.
We were going to be awesome, until we had kids. And now that we have them, we compare ourselves to other parents, we compare our kids to other kids, and we have this sneaking suspicion that everyone is pulling it off except us, and everyone else’s kids are Mensa-level smart and never eat woodchips or duct tape their siblings to the kitchen table. When we realize we’re not measuring up to our pre-parent ideals, we panic and take to the internet and parenting books, where we truly discover what losers we are. It’s worse than we thought. We freak out, and the only thing that seems to help is freaking out with other parents.
Or maybe you’re not worried. Yet. If you’re the only one not panicking, then you think there’s something wrong with you. Why are you so calm? Don’t you love your kids? You dig deep and start freaking out to fit in and prove that you, too, love your children. Your kids were fine eating regular butter from the dairy aisle, but someone told you butter causes instant sterilization, and now, after spending all afternoon researching butters and talking to other parents who are freaking out about butter, you drive an hour out of town to a farm, where you invest in grass-fed butter from locally milked, non-GMO cows receiving cow yoga and udder massage. Now you feel uppity about your butter, warn other people about butter danger, and we all buy more books, read more articles, and the panic grows.
The thing is, we don’t notice how nuts we are until it’s too late, because we’re like that lobster getting boiled alive. Or is it a frog? I don’t know fancy food. We start off in cool water, enjoying a nice swim with our new spawn, and then the water starts to heat up around us incrementally. We think, Hey, somebody sent me an article about what helps brain development in utero and my doctor gave me these prenatal vitamins. A few minor changes because I love my kid. Awesome. I’m amazing. Look how selfless I’m being. I haven’t had wine in three months. Somebody, give me Parent of the Year.
When you’re popping those prenatal pills, then crushing organic veggies into homemade baby food, you’re doing all this to develop your baby’s brain. You think you want a big-brained superbaby, but as your kid starts growing up, eating Play-Doh, and biting other kids at day care, you start to lower your expectations. Huh. Maybe if I sign him up for some music classes, that’ll fix it. You find yourself sitting in a circle with other parents each week while the kids shake maracas, but your kid just wants to beat himself in the head with the maracas. Then he bites one of the other kids. The horror. Why is your child so violent? You microwaved your lunch meat for nine months and avoided sushi. Is this because you had a C-section? Does he have a proclivity for violence and knives because that’s the first thing he saw in the world? You start picturing jail time. Your baby does look good in orange. You imagine a lifetime of conversations on phones looking through that Plexiglass partition thingy. Your baby loves his plastic phone he got for Christmas. You lower your expectations a tad more. Maybe instead of a superbaby you could be content with a non–serial killer. Instead of Neil deGrasse Tyson, you aim for not Jeffrey Dahmer.
I never thought I’d doubt myself so much. I never thought I’d blame myself so much for every little foible and failing. I promised I’d never yell. I totally yell. I told myself I’d be patient. Should’ve known parenting didn’t come with a personality transplant. And here’s the kicker. I thought I’d enjoy parenting more. I don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids and really enjoy a tremendous amount of the parenting action I see. But there are some parts that just aren’t enjoyable. It’s not all fun and games. Well, there are a lot of games, but they cease to be fun when it’s your eighth round of Candy Land or you’re sitting in a rainy stadium watching your cheerleader spell B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E five hundred times.
I’ve disappointed myself with how underwhelming I am as a parent. Other parents seem to have it together better. They always remember their kids’ school account logins, they pack awesome lunches, and they enjoy every second of a poetry recitation contest, even other people’s kid’s poems, even the sixth child in a row doing Shel Silverstein. Or maybe the other parents are better at faking it. Maybe none of us are getting it all right, but we can’t tell because no one can see past their own shortcomings. Maybe there’s no such thing as straight A’s in parenting. Perish the thought.
Before you can lighten up about the expectations you had for parenting, first you have to mourn those expectations. Did you think it would come easy to you? Did you think your kids would be more like you or less like you? Maybe you played basketball so you hoped your kid would play basketball. Maybe your child is facing an unexpected diagnosis. Maybe you told yourself you’d never yell at your kids.
Make a list, write an essay, or, if you hate writing, then stare at a wall and think hard about the expectations you had going into parenting. Write or say all your expectations out loud, and then let yourself mourn the fact that life didn’t turn out that way. This doesn’t take anything away from your real kids. Mourning your imaginary unicorn kids in your brain frees you up to love the unique, incredible kids you actually have. Mourning your delusions of parental grandeur frees you up to accept yourself as the loving loser you actually are. Take a moment to be honest with yourself. Are you comparing your kids to the fake ones in your dreams? Are you comparing yourself with an airbrushed, glossy pinup version of a parent? Are you comparing yourself with the neighbor down the street?
Whether other parents are faking it or actually amazeballs, I have a tried and true method for overcoming my comparison issues. When you see other parents who seem to have it all together, picture their bathrooms at home and make them gross. You don’t know what their real bathrooms look like, but when you meet SuperMom at soccer practice, the best way to survive that with your dignity intact is to visualize her bathroom at home. Her boys have peed up the walls, and there’s something greenish growing in the corner. Her daughter likes to smear an entire tube of toothpaste all over the sink each night, and SuperMom has been too busy being awesome on the outside to deal with any of this. When she’s handing out her perfect snacks dressed in her bangin’ Lululemon yoga outfit that showcases her perfectly sculpted butt, think about her awful, gag-worthy bathroom and feel a sense of camaraderie. Because even if we can pull off a decent look out in the world, we all have that bathroom waiting for us back home.
“My boy, Silas, started walking at eight months! He was doing long division by four years old, and he’s already on his fifth language! But I can’t take any credit for it. He’s a natural because of how I read to him for five hours every day when he was a baby.”
“Coraline, my nine-year-old, just got pre-pre-pre-accepted into Harvard and we’re really hashtag blessed.”
Part of what makes us feel like sucky parents is listening to everyone else humblebrag about their kids’ accomplishments. Post your kid’s report card on Facebook one more time, Karen.
(I just took a break from writing to check on the kids and found that one of them had painted a box bright red then chucked all the brushes, covered in wet red paint, into our antique family heirloom cabinet. As you can imagine, I handled this with grace, poise, and a touch of whimsy, celebrating her artistic endeavor and bold attempt to skip steps in the cleanup process. Just kidding, I yelled. I yelled so hard. Now, where was I on unpacking my expert parenting advice?)
My body wasn’t keen on being pregnant. It tried to tell me through the years of infertility, but I finally banged it into submission. By week thirty-four, the preeclampsia, partially abrupted placenta, and intrauterine growth restriction were finally too much to take, so in a lovely effort to keep me from stroking out, the good doctors cut Elliott out of me and whisked him up to the NICU to recover in an incubator spa. He even had tiny goggles over his eyes to protect them from the bilirubin lights. He looked like he was in a baby tanning bed, and I worried about sunscreen. He comes from moley stock.
You know those checklists they go through at the pediatrician’s at each checkup appointment? “Does he have over fifty words?” “Is he walking?” and “Is he doing advanced calculus yet?” Weighing in at four pounds and already a prizefighter for surviving my toxic womb, Elliott was behind on every single thing on the chart. For the first few years of his life, we didn’t have a lot of check marks. My kiddo wasn’t fully baked, so he took awhile to catch up. And I’m glad. Having a preemie was the best thing that could’ve happened to break me out of competitive parenting. When people bragged to me about their walking, talking wonders, I smiled. Wow. That’s so great for you. My kid developed in his own time, and I learned to love him for it. These days he’s both bigger and smarter than me, so it all worked out.
A few years later, when Ana came to live with us, I was instantly hurled into tween parenting. I sat in school meetings listening to the other parents ask questions about grades and test scores, and I knew nothing. Up till then, I’d been hanging out in the land of sight words and preschool craft projects with Elliott and Evie, and now here I was learning about these statewide tests that all the big kids had to pass. Stress! Goals! Something called a Lexile level! While the other kids at school were acing tests and probably reading War and Peace, Ana was learning her third language and second alphabet. She flunked her eye exam, and everyone thought she couldn’t see, when really, she didn’t know the English alphabet. Having an English language learner and marveling as my daughter figured out a whole new life on the fly taught me so much. I learned that there is no one way to quantify success. Ana not only learned English but learned a whole teen vernacular that’s beyond me. These days I’m the one catching up.
- Me: You’re so lit, honey! And I mean the cool lit not the drunk one! And also not literature. Lit. That’s what the kids are saying these days, right?
- Ana: Oh my gosh, please stop.
- Me: You’re the GOAT. That’s Greatest of All Time. You’re totes that.
- Ana: Wow.
Your kids will change how you see the world. They’ll shatter your expectations in more ways than you can imagine. Throughout our kids’ lives, there are so many trophies and awards. We have expectations for our kids, and they inevitably do things their own way, whether by choice or by necessity. We watch our sweaty little miracles work so hard at the things unseen by the rest of the world. Your babies have achievements that only you know about. I wish there were trophies for the invisible achievements. I wish there were trophies for our invisible achievements, too. We are doing so much right, but sometimes we focus on all the ways we miss the mark.
I award you, dear parent, the Didn’t Yell Today Cup (I didn’t earn that one today; thanks, red paint). You get the Made Dinner on Two Hours of Sleep Certificate. Here’s the At the Hospital with a Sick Child and Still Have to Go to Work Trophy. We may feel like losers most of the time, but we’re pretty flipping fantastic.
Also, it’s okay to suck at some stuff. Maybe you are a total loser in one or two areas, and that’s okay. We don’t all have to be good at everything. There’s this expectation that we’re supposed to meet all our kids’ needs, but that’s impossible. They need way too much. I cannot be three places at once, and I certainly can’t coach soccer. Instead of approaching parenting like a sole proprietor business, we need to approach it like a large company, with divisions for everything. One parent is the sportsball coach. One’s bringing killer snacks. One works at the DMV and makes sure we all can still drive our minivans. Somebody volunteer to hold babies at church, somebody be a doctor and cure their ear infections, and somebody else chaperone the school field trip. We all have several jobs to do, but we don’t have to do them all.
Think through your routines. Are you trying to be awesome at everything? Is there something you need to calm the heck down about? Are you freaking out about butter? Maybe it’s not butter, but whatever “butter” is for you, think through if you can cut out some steps. Are you going to more than two grocery stores a week on the hunt for magic ingredients? How many times a month are you logging in to your son’s school account to check his grades? There are some areas in our lives that we can’t simplify, but can you simplify a noncritical area to lighten your load? For instance, we have a team around some of us dealing with medicines and therapies, and those things are here to stay right now. I can’t do anything about those things. But what I can do is break up with baking and say no to crafts. Other people can do those. I can suck at those and excel in something else.
Lower your expectations for your kids to be superhuman in all categories. And lower the expectations on yourself. Stop killing yourself competing with other parents and let the milestones, awards, and benchmarks fall away. So, we thought we’d be better at this than we are. We thought parenting would be a slam dunk. Whatever. We don’t need that kind of pressure in our lives.
We tend to have two modes when it comes to expectations for stuff. Mode One is blind excitement. This experience is going to blow my kids’ minds. They are going to get along perfectly. Everyone is going to be healthy. They are going to be overcome with gratitude for how much I love them. I am amazing. Mode Two is doomsday thinking. This experience is going to be a clustercluck. My kids are going to fight the whole time, decide they hate me, and sacrifice me to appease a volcano god. Someone will most likely die horribly. It’s my experience that most things fall somewhere in between, we all survive, and our kids will even have a few decent memories from their childhoods. I’ve learned to swap my great expectations for good enough expectations.
Depending on how you’re wired, you may need to lower your expectations or possibly raise them. Some of us assume everything will be awesome, and some assume everything will crash and burn. So, I’ll say tweak your expectations. Ask yourself, “Am I expecting too much from this person or situation?” “Am I expecting too little?” Calm down and aim for good enough. With most situations in parenting, it’s a mixed bag and you’ll probably come out with a few lessons, a few fun memories, some laughs, and one or two moments you’d like to expunge permanently from your brain.
To combat impossible standards and the pressure of crazy expectations, you may need to narrow your world. If you have too many conflicting voices in your head, too many people up in your business, whittle down your insiders. You might need to limit social media, stop hanging out with the people who are stressing you out, and read less. (I mean clickbait internet articles and other people’s Facebook feeds. Keep reading this very important book, ’kay? Thanks.) I mean, read more, read lots more, but put up some healthy blinders when it comes to posts and articles about every possible thing we’re supposed to be enraged and freaked out about. This amount of input is not sustainable for human life.
When I was pregnant, I learned that I needed to narrow my world, because the amount of information out there was destroying me and, subsequently, the poor boy trapped inside me. We have access to so much info, from people, print, and podcasts, and I decided to give myself less access. I didn’t need to know about every possible thing that could go wrong. No human should have to carry the burden of literally everything. I narrowed my focus, made my world a little smaller, and decided to calm down and enjoy this baby no matter what. This decision came in handy as my pregnancy tanked and my birth plan became an adorable fairy tale.
Or maybe instead of narrowing your world, you need to broaden yours. Maybe you’re feeling the pressure of expectations because you’re surrounded by friends or family who do everything the same and you’re expected to conform. Broaden your mind. Get out and discover other ways of doing things and recognize the value in other people’s choices. We don’t all have to be the same.
I have a regular practice I call “Palms-Up Parenting” that I employ when I feel the pressure of perfectionism and the worries that I’ll somehow mess up my kids starting to make me frizzy. Take a deep breath and ball up your fists. Now release your breath and fists and hold out your hands palms up. I say a three-word prayer with this: “God, they’re yours.” Or you can just breathe. Palms-Up Parenting reminds me to parent with an open hand instead of a closed fist. I can’t control every aspect of their lives with an iron grip. I have to loosen up. I practice this whenever I want to go Full Gollum, snatch up my kids, clench my fists, and hiss, “My precioussss.” Last week I had to practice Palms-Up Parenting when I had the brilliant idea to read Pet Sematary while vacationing at a beach house on a busy highway.
Expectations—the ones people have for us, the ones we put on our kids, and the ones we have for ourselves—can leave us frustrated and frazzled. We’re expected to be perfect parents who raise perfect kids, and that’s exhausting, not to mention impossible. Thankfully, there’s another way. We need to calm the h*ck down.
- 1. Laugh at yourself regularly. Cultivate a healthy sense of humor.
- 2. Put yourself in time-out for a few minutes. Go sit on the stairs, hide in the bathroom, or take a quick bubble bath.
- 3. Take a walk and get some fresh air.
- 4. Make a top ten list of all the things you did well today. Read it out loud in the mirror.
- 5. Swear into a pillow. (My friend Jenni flips her kids the bird under the table. Don’t judge until you have teenagers.)
- 6. Sing karaoke in the kitchen or at your desk if you have your own office. (Might be awkward in a shared space, but you do you.) You can find great online karaoke on the Karaoke Channel on YouTube or karafun.com.
- 7. Say something you’re grateful for. Gratitude trumps crappy ’tude.
- 8. Do a forward fold. Plant your feet hip-width apart, bend at the waist, and let your arms dangle toward the ground. Nod your head yes. Feel the stretch in the back of your legs. Be careful as you stand up, so you don’t pass out.
- 9. Have coffee or something stronger with a friend. Good friends can diffuse our stress and help us feel like we’re not alone.
- 10. Hug your kid.
1 Claire Cain Miller, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” New York Times, December 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/25/upshot/the-relentlessness-of-modern-parenting.html.
Table of Contents
1 Calm the H*ck Down: Lighten Up About Expectations 1
2 I'm Sorry for Raising Monsters: Lighten Up About Behavior 23
3 Talking Is Hard: Lighten Up About Words 47
4 But What If I Want to Miss Part of My Kid's Childhood?: Lighten Up About Work 61
5 Can Everyone Please Notice How Awesome I Am?: Lighten Up About Yourself 79
6 Sleep, Eat, Poop, Repeat: Lighten Up About Bodily Functions 93
7 Mommy Needs a Time-Out: Lighten Up About Feelings 119
8 People Are Super Awkward, Including You: Lighten Up About Friends 133
9 What Happens in the Backpack Stays in the Backpack: Lighten Up About School 155
10 Go Team Win the Sportsball!: Lighten Up About Activities 171
11 Celebrate Good Times, or Don't: Lighten Up About Making Memories 187
12 When Armpits Awaken: Lighten Up About Big Kids 203
13 I Hope I Still Like You After They're Gone: Lighten Up About Marriage 219
14 "Mom, You Only Had Sex the One Time, Right?": Lighten Up About Sex 233
15 I Worry My Kids Will Be Satanists: Lighten Up About Belief 243
16 This Too Shall Pass: Lighten Up About the Future 259
The Lighten Up Guidelines for Laughing at Life 271