Saturday, April 6, 2013

Being Whole

I belong to a local mom forum on Facebook, and every few months or so, someone will ask the question, "What is one thing you are doing as a parent that you swore you would never do?"

Reading the answers feels like sociology research, and I find it fascinating. First off, it's always a nice reminder that parenting as a reality is so much different from parenting in theory. Parenting an actual, real child (or several of them!) with an actual, real personality means doing things differently than you had once thought they ought to be done. It's always nice to know that everyone's been through this.

And I love seeing what answers come up. They run the gamut of parenting choices. Co-sleeping, sleep training, babywearing, breastfeeding, extended breastfeeding, supplementing with formula, not breastfeeding at all, epidural, out-of-hospital birth, different discipline styles, staying at work, quitting work. You name it, someone thought they would never do it and ended up doing it anyway. Either out of necessity, or change in beliefs. And sometimes they love the change, sometimes they hate it, sometimes they just accept it for what it is. Such is parenting. Such is life.

But there are always two that stand out and blow the rest out of the water: allowing junk food, and allowing television. To differing degrees of course. For some people, it's allowing these things at all. For others, it's allowing their worse versions (non-organic, for instance, or non-PBS). For still others, it's the frequency--weekly Pizza Hut night or daily TV--or the way they've become used as bribes for potty training or good behavior. But once someone admits they use these things, regularly or not, everyone else starts admitting it, too.

Which takes courage, in the parenting world. It's one thing to say you thought breastfeeding was gross until you first nursed your precious little one. It's another entirely to say that sometimes, you just want to shower alone so badly that you let your kids watch whatever cartoon keeps them out of the bathroom. It's easy to say your standards have changed for the better. It's harder to say that sometimes, you let your kids do things that don't quite sync with your standards.

But seeing these confessions is an important reminder that almost no one is the perfect parent we're all told we should be. Sure, some are more protective than others. I know families that don't own a TV at all and who cook most of their food from scratch. I know a lot of parents with extremely high standards when it comes to what their children consume; I know kids who have never had fast food, ever, even kids who have never had juice. But no matter whether we feed Annie's Organic Homegrown Bunny Snacks or plain old Costco fruit snacks, most of us have compromised with less-than-ideal food from time to time. No matter whether it's educational YouTube clips or run-of-the-mill Disney channel, video makes a darn good babysitter. And most of us have used it, in one way or the other. Also, no matter how sheltered any child is from media junk or food junk, they will run into it someday. I'm willing to bet there are very, very few adults (at least in the Western world) who have never consumed anything televised or processed in their entire lives. It's okay, as a parent, to let these things go, once in a blue moon, once in a while, or even regularly.

And yet, I struggle sometimes, because shouldn't we strive for excellence in parenting, just as we would in any line of work? "Everyone does it" is a pretty shoddy excuse for doing a poor job. Television is addictive. Junk food is gross. We are stewards of our children's bodies and minds, and we have an immense amount of power when it comes to choosing what we allow them to consume. Shouldn't we do it responsibly?

Plus, there seems to be a trend, albeit a very minor one, in some parenting communities, towards being proud of your parenting imperfections, sometimes oddly so. Hey, guess what my kids did all day? Ate chips and drank soda--in the living room--and watched trashy pre-teen TV! And then they fought and bickered and I yelled at them and then I let them play video games just so I could drink wine and watch my own trashy reality shows in peace! Take that, farmers' market shoppers who design crafts for your children! I get the confessional aspect, I really do. And I get being annoyed with the (much greater) trend toward an often-judgmental perfectionism in parenting. But shouldn't we want good for our children? Shouldn't that be our goal, even if it isn't always our reality?

But as I was thinking about this tension between standards and daily life, between staying realistic and honest and still striving for excellence, I had a thought. Maybe excellence is the wrong goal. Maybe what we should be working toward is wholeness.

Because when it comes down to it, TV and junk food, even in organic, educational form, are not necessarily good. But stress and strife and burnout are far less good. And I don't mean that at all flippantly. Choosing a to let your kids watch TV because you need a moment's peace is far better than insisting on doing organic crafts and snapping at your kids the whole time you're doing them. (It's also better than beating yourself up because you can't be patient and do the organic craft like That One Creative Perfect Mama.)  Going to McDonald's as a family because you need to get out of the house is far better than staying in the house and being angry at each other. Choosing to take care of yourself--by showering, getting dressed, cooking good meals, relaxing, whatever it is you need to stay sane and healthy--is important, even if an hour of TV is what allows that to happen.

Not that working toward wholeness means neglecting health entirely. If I want a happy, healthy family, I won't choose fast food for every meal simply because it's convenient. I won't just consume large portions of chocolate every time I find myself alone (ahem...still working on that one). I won't just turn on YouTube all the time because it's a guaranteed attention-getter that doesn't require my actually playing with my child. But I'll keep things in perspective, too. Some days I will turn on the TV and snuggle with my baby because quality time is important, and that's the only quality time I have the mental energy for. Some days I'll eat that extra piece of chocolate, because that's what it takes to be patient instead of annoyed during unexplained nap-resistance. Some days I'll desperately want a long, hot shower, or the freedom to cook a meal alone, or even something stupid like a new nail color or another chapter of a book. And I'll choose those things, along with whatever TV or computer game that entails for Peregrine, because choosing them will mean that I will be more present, more patient, more kind, more whole. I don't ever want to rely on these things to make me a good person, a good parent. But they are tools, and I will use them when they help.

And sometimes, I'll throw it all to the wind. Sometimes we'll have ice-cream dates (surprise ice cream dates) because they're fun, and they communicate love. Sometimes we'll throw parties, and there will be junk food (lots of it!) involved, and there will be memories made, memories that I hope will be just as treasured as the memories of berry picking and nature walks and other wholesome hippie ways to kill time and celebrate life.

Because, if I may paraphrase Saint Paul, all the organic food and imaginative play and brain-enhancing activities are useless without love. If I don't love my kids well, these other things profit me nothing.  Sometimes, Monster Trucks on YouTube, snuggled up with a blanket and a mommy and a bottle of juice, is truly good in a way that simply not consuming media and sugar could never be. Sometimes, a special date to Dairy Queen is better than a home-cooked meal of organic kale. In different ways, but better, nonetheless.

So let's do good for our children and ourselves. Let's take care of our bodies and minds, and the bodies and minds that have been entrusted to us. But let's remember that sometimes, it's not black and white. Sometimes, being whole is so much more important than being right.
Outside a greasy diner with a very beloved great-grandmother. Guess which one matters infinitely much more?

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