My daughter Zora just celebrated her first birthday. Or, more accurately, the family celebrated it for her. At her age, life’s a party. Every day brims with play and doting attention. If only the good times could roll uninterrupted from toddler to teen.
She’s got it so good these days that I wonder if she even noticed that we took it up a notch on her birthday. My mom decorated her high chair with a banner and balloons. My husband donned a pink cardboard hat and belted out the birthday song. I did dramatic readings of her cards. The adults cackled over a gift T-shirt that read, If you think I’m cute, you should see my uncle!
The birthday girl went crazy over the wrapping paper and one itty-bitty cupcake plucked from the top of a tiered tray. Since Zora was too entranced by the flame and too young to grasp the concept, her dad blew out the candle and made a wish for her.
I made several. I wished for our daughter’s continued happiness and health as she grows older and life gains complexity. I wished her great friends and loving family for all her days. I wished her a big dream for herself and the motivation to pursue it to the hilt.
Later I realized I should be wishing the same for myself, for my husband, and for all moms and dads. The best parenting is done by example after all.
Modeling the kind of contentment that we all want for our children isn’t easy as adults. We’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed, communities to serve, and the untold stress that comes with these and other grown-up responsibilities. But if we work at happiness the same way (or better than) we work at our jobs, we undoubtedly give our kids a better shot at it. At the very least, we give them a well-worn path and loving guide.
From this first year with Zora, I’ve learned raising the children of our dreams starts with some simple, but never easy, parental commitments.
1. Do one thing at a time.
Buy into the Super Mom or Super Dad myth at your peril. Burdening yourself with the unrealistic expectation of doing it all is the surest path to burnout and coming up short where it really counts. You can do a lot as a parent, but you can only do one thing well at a time. Texting from the sideline of your child’s soccer game or worse, from behind the wheel, is not a good look. Neither is half-listening to them while parked in front of the television, or reviewing homework while on the phone with a colleague. It pays to give children our full attention lest they mistake our bad habits for acceptable behavior. Yesterday, my daughter whose speech usually doesn’t extend beyond a steady chorus of “dada,” picked up my cell phone, held it to her ear and said “hi” clear as day. I wonder how many times she watched me do that before she picked it up.
2. Just say “no.”
We all know it’s important to focus, yet we all struggle to do it because there’s so much we could be doing. In any given moment, we could be fielding numerous requests from friends, family, and colleagues by phone, email, text, or tweet. Even perfect strangers have no problem reaching out and asking for our time and energy because technology eliminates gatekeepers and emboldens users. But unless the opportunity is so compelling that you can’t contain your enthusiasm, you should turn it down. Trust me, it gets easier with practice. I am now fluent in “no.” No with a smile. No with a referral to someone who would actually appreciate the request. No with a reference to a helpful book or article. No. No. No. I just recall how quickly “no” rolls off my tongue when I see my daughter inching toward danger and think that I can use the refrain to save myself from time to time too.
3. Say “yes” and mean it.
When something makes its way onto your extremely exclusive to-do list, do it with zest, oomph, gusto. Often this is harder than it sounds. Case in point, I want to be the kind of mom that whips up fresh, healthy, delicious meals with ease, but I hate grocery shopping. Well, that’s part of the larger “yes” of feeding my family well, so I have to work at bringing the right mindset and enthusiasm to its more tedious dimensions. I consciously change the way I look at going to the store and try to find little things to love along the way. I sing in the car. I try to savor (instead of bemoan) the abundance of items on the shelves. In the checkout line, I play with the cute passenger in my shopping cart’s basket, and hope she gathers that in this family we do as much as we can with a smile.
4. Keep first things first – every day.
One of the biggest challenges I face on a daily basis is holding my true priorities in mind as I attempt to be responsive to the demands of others. It takes incredible discipline and consistency to organize our entire days, every day, around the things we say we want. I wake up to my email inbox far too often and spend too much time stuck there. I feel a sense of accomplishment from hitting the send button. But at what cost? Am I answering unimportant emails instead of cuddling with my daughter, getting some exercise in, or setting the table for an inspired day? The world, not to mention our children, would be much better served if we focused our finest efforts on our absolute top priorities. How’s that for a wake-up call?
5. Give thanks.
Slowing down and concentrating your efforts on the things that matter most will get you and your family far. Throwing in a dash of gratefulness multiplies the benefits. Appreciation is the currency of success. Take a regular inventory of all the good you’ve experienced, the inspiring events you’ve witnessed, the friends you’ve made, the great memories you never want to forget. Whether captured in photos or text, in a private journal or on a public mommy blog, this record can then become a touchstone that you return to when you need a jolt of energy or a reminder of why you’re on the path you’ve chosen. Numerous studies have shown that people who are consciously grateful are more optimistic, energetic, determined, joyful, and generous. Why not be one of them? Why not raise one of them?
“Real mom” Maya Smart lives in Richmond with her husband, Shaka, and their 1-year-old daughter, Zora. Maya manages a home, a business, and serves as chair of James River Writers.