Confessions from an imperfect parent

Jackson, August, and Avery.

A few years back, when my oldest, Jackson, was just over a year old and I was drowning in the pressures of new motherhood, I wrote a column about my desire to start embracing the “#MomFail.” I was more stressed than I had ever been, felt like I was in over my head, and needed a break from the societal expectations parents confront daily. 

I recounted the days when Ashlee and I felt like we were falling down on the job — constant baby screaming, dirty hands, forgotten toys, plans gone awry — and advocated for parents, including us, to start showing themselves a little grace and, essentially, chill out with the idea of being perfect. Three-and-a-half years and two more babies later, I have taken that advice to heart, probably to an unhealthy degree. 

Today, Jackson ate crushed Pringles off our deck. August fell off the couch twice. I stopped changing my shirt after about the fifth time Avery vomited on me. The concept of “perfect” parenting I was striving toward back when Jackson was a baby has been supplanted by reality: Kids are dirty, cranky, unpredictable, and often-untameable little messes. Yes, they’re sweet, adorable, funny and awe-inspiring (and parenting is, by far, the most incredible thing I’ve ever done) but no amount of “perfection” can make a house with kids in it run smoothly all of the time (or even 50%!). 

While I’ve been aiming to embrace this mindset for years, I didn’t truly get there until my hand was forced  — having twins and a toddler will do that to you. Someone once told me that, once parents are outnumbered by their kids, they have to lower their standards a hell of a lot. And when I had the twins, we went from being parents of one kid to three overnight (well, over two minutes) and my standards plummeted.

It happened on a delayed schedule because of our weird beginning: August home from the NICU after two months and Avery not until five months. But on the first night we were all under the same roof, it came crashing down on me. Ashlee was putting Jackson to bed and I had August in his swing and Avery in a bassinet across the room, both screaming bloody murder. I was tearing up the rug running back and forth, popping binkies in mouths, trying to shush them, swaddle and re-swaddle but to no avail: One would cry, then that would start the other…and then 30 seconds later, one would cry and that would start the other… I was in tears sitting in the middle of the rug by the time Ashlee came down, just lamenting, “How the hell are we supposed to do this?!”

A few months out, I’ve seen the solution: We’re not! There’s no physical way to keep two babies calm and quiet at the same time, all the time. They can cry; they won’t melt. With Ashlee in nursing school, I spend a lot of time with three kids and I have had to just accept the fact that I have just two hands and only so much patience: Someone will always, always be crying. When family and friends stop over and a baby starts crying, they always rush right over in a panic to try to comfort them and I try to dispel them of that reaction; I think visitors are starting to think I’m cold-hearted!

The second (and third) child

Not fussing about baby fussing is definitely new for us; when Jackson was a baby, we would rush to his crib every time he made a peep overnight (that’s probably why he often wakes up at 4 a.m. now yelling for us to bring him a tissue, give him a wet rag for his eyes or put his blanket back over his foot!). Once babies 2 and 3 came along, that nonsense was done, along with a lot of other behaviors we adopted for our first child. 

We were anal (and still kind of are) about Jackson’s nap time. We knew he was apt to throw tantrums, get overtired and generally make life hell if he didn’t hit the sack at exactly the right time and for the right amount of time. Now, at 8 months (5 adjusted for preemie status), the twins still don’t have set nap times. Last month, Avery started in-home feeding and physical therapy and both therapists asked at intake what her nap times were and I had to stutter something about how she was a bit unpredictable when it came to naps. In reality, she sometimes sleeps when August stops yelling and Jackson’s not singing “Paw Patrol” songs at the top of his lungs. Some days, she doesn’t nap at all. 

When Jackson first arrived, we tried to capture every picture-perfect moment. We religiously took his photo on a monthly milestone blanket, turning ourselves inside out to get him to smile. With the twins, I took their last monthly photo a week late and have yet to get one of both of them smiling (and I don’t really try too hard!). When Jackson was the only kid, he and these silly tasks had our undivided attention. Now, trying to take the most frameable photo happens while we’re simultaneously putting out 12 different fires so our commitment is definitely a little lax. 

Similarly, how we push these kiddos to meet their milestones is also a bit looser than with our first. August recently started eating purees; when Jackson reached that phase, we had a whole calendar of what veggie or fruit we were going to serve for the requisite several days in a row (to weed out potential allergies), with our fridge and freezer full of homemade recipes. Poor August, however, has sampled purees every couple of days when we remember! But he downed a huge container of carrots the other day, so I think he’s doing okay. And I don’t think our rigid adherence to feeding introduction really helped Jackson out all that much: His diet today primarily consists of fish sticks and Hershey kisses.

Relaxing the rules

With the first-born, Ashlee and I lived by rules. Having strict parameters around bedtime, mealtime, screentime, discipline and more helped us calm the constant feeling of overwhelm. Now, I find myself saying “Sure, why not?” more often than “No!” — largely because of the risk/reward factor when it comes to picking my battles: If I let Jackson have a few extra minutes of TV time when he asks, it’s pretty unlikely that’ll turn him into a spoiled sociopath, but almost guaranteed it’ll win me a few minutes of peace and quiet. 

Dinnertime is a prime example. Jackson has long been a picky eater and, with multiple kids, I’ve had to forego the hour of creative tricks it would take to get him to eat two meatballs for efficiency’s sake. He’s taken to eating a piece of untoasted bread with unmelted cheddar cheese sprinkles on it. One night, all he would stomach was three Ritz crackers. Last week, he and August sat on top of the dining room table — Jackson in his underwear for some reason I don’t even recall and August in just a diaper — and we had them race each other to see who could eat their respective Spaghetti O’s or baby purees faster. 

And the desserts! The me of 2018 would have been aghast at the amount of sugar I allow Jackson to have. You stayed in bed without waking us up all night? Hershey kiss for you! You agree to tiptoe through the living room to not wake the twins? Have yourself a cookie! 

Our inclination to bend the rules more is dovetailing with the age at which Jackson is more eager to make choices for himself. He has a pair of fur-lined, camouflage rain boots that he is inexplicably attached to and, lucky for him, I’ve recently taken to saying “Whatever” every time he goes to put them on: walks around the neighborhood in 90-degree heat, the mall, the neighborhood library. We recently walked the dog both wearing superhero masks and capes and I hesitated for far too long when he asked if he could wear underwear on his head to the playground the other day. 

While on one recent playground trip, Jackson proclaimed a pee emergency at the top of a slide. Unwilling to pack up two babies, a dog and a sweaty almost 4-year-old and haul it back six blocks uphill, I explained to Jackson how he could make his own potty behind a tree, and stood in front of him like a lookout. Now, every time we’re at the playground (or any other outdoor adventure), he gets an evil glint in his eyes and declares he has to go.

My newfound blaise approach also shows in the state of our house. For some time last month, we had a large cooler sitting in the middle of our dining room, which, on a nightly basis, Jackson climbed inside of and would ask us to roll him through the house. Meanwhile, the living room floor holds a playmat, two Boppy pillows, a twin Boppy pillow, a feeding chair, swing, bouncing chair and bouncer (which are different!). Navigating from the front door to the back is an art that I have perfected. 

I wouldn’t use the word “perfect” to describe much else about our current parenting: The house is a warzone, the toddler is frequently and permissibly mischievous, and the babies and their routines are often in varying states of disarray. But, unless there was an unlimited number of hours in the day, perfection in all of those areas would mean we wouldn’t have time to strive for perfection in other places. If I cared what the house looked like, me, Ashlee and Jackson wouldn’t have had a blast the other night doing superhero flips over couch pillows and a yoga mat in the middle of the living room. And if I was so invested in saying “no” to Jackson, he and I wouldn’t have had one of our favorite days ever on a recent impromptu beach trip where I let him have ice cream before dinner and bought him way too many souvenirs. And if we were fixated on specified nap times for the twins, they would have missed our on their first dip in a pool with their big brother last week. 

I often think it would be nice for parenting to have a playbook, but the longer we do this, the more we see that there’s no perfect solution to any parenting challenge. It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing that makes each turn unpredictable, messy and incredibly imperfect. But that’s what makes it so fun.

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