The first time I ever saw a Peapod grocery delivery truck roaming our neighborhood, I said in my most superior voice, "I will never order food online to be delivered." Embedded in that statement were the unspoken judgments about parents who don’t care enough to go to the store and shop, who are too lazy and who are disorganized. As I write this, I am waiting for my Peapod order to be delivered. What created my change in attitude? Lots of things contributed, including developing a less judgmental attitude toward the process. Over the years of raising my children and juggling work, writing, housecleaning, carpooling, soccer trips, meals and laundry, I’ve had this desire to be the perfect mom with perfect organization and perfect execution. I’ve fallen short so many times that it’s a wonder I have any self-esteem left.
My own mother raised five children while never failing to have dinner on the table at 6:15 every single night. Fast food for our family was a gourmet meal enjoyed only for lunch and only once or twice a year. She oversaw all our homework, corrected our papers to a point we didn’t appreciate until much later in life, grocery shopped after dinner because we only had one car and my dad used that to go to work. She ran her errands Saturday afternoons, recorded books for the blind, did thousands of elementary school eye screenings throughout the Seattle area using taxis, buses, or friends for transportation, served on the Alaska-Northwest Synod of the Presbyterian Church, and kept an immaculate home. She was a difficult role model to live up to! So it’s not surprising that every time I compromised on her standards I felt huge pangs of guilt.
We parents carry around a lot of expectations for ourselves, which have been formed by our upbringing, the media and even ads. Imagine the shame "ring around the collar" 1960s housewives had to bear giving way to "Choosy mothers choose Jif" in the ‘80s, capped off with "You’re not as clean as you think" from Dial a few years ago. We are constantly reminded we aren’t measuring up to an ideal. Keeping a stack of pizzas in the freezer became a silent rebuke every time I opened the door — "you are a terrible mother to let your kids eat something so high in salt and fat!" Squeezing soccer practices, school work and home-cooked meals into the four hours following after-school activities meant that we often grabbed dinner and did homework at a family restaurant between the soccer fields and home as the recriminations flooded my brain. I managed to resist McDonald’s for 10 years, but in a moment of panic on a trip down to Chicago when Robbie was suffering from low blood sugar I pulled into the drive-thru and upped not only his sugar, but his fat and preservative intake, as well. Before long, that toll road oasis stop became regular, as did my self-loathing.
How many of you have typed papers for your kids because you really wanted them to get some sleep? That’s like entering the first ring of hell. These types of moral dilemmas can eat away at our confidence as parents. We can justify with some pride giving our kids an extra hour of sleep while suffering through the guilt that we aren’t teaching them to do their own work. Child psychologists tell us again and again how our job as parents isn’t to rescue our kids. If they forget their lunch or homework when they leave for school, we’re not to race down and give it to them. If they aren’t prepared for a test, we’re not to let them stay home "sick." If they have a project for school, we’re not to help other than to get the poster board and glue. I’ve broken all of these and so much more. I’ve also said publicly that our schools don’t do enough to teach our kids how to problem-solve while totally undermining that concept by rushing to the rescue. Asking our child "How could you solve this?" isn’t worth listening to the whining and the pouting when we can simply tell them what to do. I hate conflicts, so I tend to do whatever I can to avoid them, even as my parental pride is oozing away like the wicked witch in Oz.
Year by year, day by day, I have found myself faced with the catch-22 of compromising my parental expectations for quick fixes or necessary evils. My mother passed away many years ago, and I regret not asking her what she compromised in her parenting. I’m sure she did, I just never saw it. I only witnessed her amazing ability to maintain certain standards in running the household and the family. However, I’ve come to realize some things in the intervening years. First of all, if we kids couldn’t walk or bike to it, we didn’t do it. My mother never drove us to a single game, lesson or activity. For those of us who played sports, my parents never came to watch a game, nor did our friends’ parents other than those who coached. We lived high up on a hill, more than a mile from the nearest community buildings, fields, stores and schools, but we got ourselves to our events and then back home again, even if it was already dark. Today’s parents worry about kids going places alone over such distances and are more heavily invested in attending their children’s events. Second, going out to eat was rare no matter what other standards a family had. I remember in our town we had four sit-down restaurants, two of which were fine dining. If our family tried to go out to eat it would have cost a fortune. So eating at home was the logical and necessary option. The town I live in today is about the same population of the town I grew up in, and we have 35 sit-down restaurants, only two of which are expensive retreats. And we have dozens of fast food options. Getting a meal on the fly is not only easy, but also, if done once or twice a week, won’t bust the food budget. Third, kids have far more options for activities and sports than they ever have. They can participate in self-defense classes, art, science, tutoring courses, scouting, service projects and after-school clubs. Parents are warned not to over-schedule their kids, but it’s hard to whittle things down when friends are doing a number of diverse activities. So that’s another whip we can haul out for self-flagellation.
While we probably shouldn’t resort to expediency in every tough situation, we do need to forgive ourselves when we do. All that guilt I felt for not cooking every night was moderated by the fact that when I did cook I usually got met with at least one person’s displeasure with part of the meal. I found myself resorting to that horrible fall-back of "When I was a kid we ate what was put in front of us," which was rarely effective (actually never effective). While the guilt flows thick and often around us for our food choices, how we discipline, what we tolerate, what we expect, how and when we intervene in our kids’ lives, we make our decisions based on what works best with all the factors in our lives. I grew up with June Cleaver for a mom, but my best friend had Lois from Malcolm in the Middle as her mom. I was often jealous of what she got away with, given the strict discipline of my parents. Her room, and her house for that matter, was always a mess, meals were self-prepared whenever someone was hungry, she had dozens of Barbie dolls while I wasn’t allowed to have one, and she got to listen to rock music, which I had to do in secret under my bedcovers. Nevertheless, we both grew up to be productive adults who moved closer to a middle ground in our parenting. Still, I insisted my sons would never have toy guns, and then I ended up dealing with guns constructed from Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, sticks, screwdrivers, and even the dog’s chew bone. So although I didn’t compromise my stated position, I was just fooling myself. My friend told me once that she couldn’t get her daughter to play with Barbie. Go figure!
The lesson appears to be that, as long as it isn’t abuse, parenting is whatever you make of it. We can whisper under our breath about how the Smiths have their kids in too many activities or the Johnsons let their kids watch R-rated movies, but the truth is that both the Smiths and the Johnsons are probably discussing our parenting as well. I have known wild children, stressed children, overly sensitive children and shy children, all of whom have grown up wonderfully, despite any doubts I had when they were young. This brings me to Peapod. About three months ago, I realized that shopping online allowed me to read all the labels, to carefully pick products I feel will be the healthiest and most cost-worthy I can find, provide a wider selection of products, and keep me from impulse shopping because there were no kiosks touting the latest crackers, cereals, chips and candies. I still get my produce and fresh meats and fish from our local grocery — that’s part of my guilt, too, wanting to be sure I can select the right cuts. The fact is I wish I had done this a year ago. While it takes away from that image I have of the June Cleaver mom who cheerfully skips down the aisles of the grocery providing her family with the best of food chosen with love and attention, I have realized that we never saw June Cleaver shopping. For all we know, she may have had her groceries delivered to the house. I’m clinging to that idea. But it really doesn’t matter because I’m not June Cleaver. I don’t own heels or a string of pearls. Instead, I’m simply a caring mom who, like all of us, needs to accept that I must compromise in order to get through the day. That means we all need to cut ourselves some slack. Caring doesn’t require a shopping cart and the standards shift with the times.