It was the day of the class party, and I sent my son to childcare with a Ziploc bag of Valentine’s cards. I’d purchased the cards at the Dollar Store on the route of my commute the night before. The selections were slim, but I found a box I believed appealed to my 3-year-old’s aesthetic. After his bedtime, I pulled up the class list to personally address each one to his friends.

When I picked my son up from school after the party, I found a box in his cubby filled to the brim with goody bags. All his classmates had distributed cards, sure, but there was also candy and fruit, bouncy balls, and stickers.

My son’s offering was, by far, the most pitiful of the bunch. I felt like a Bad Mom.

Fortunately, though, I quickly reframed my perspective. Rather than ruminating about my paltry contribution, I smiled to myself: I bet I made another mom feel pretty good about herself in comparison to me.

Rather than wallowing in self-comparison when I feel I am “failing” at parenting, I’ve tried to impose a simple mindset shift. My shortcomings are not deficits; they are a gift to other moms. I’m giving them permission to do or try less hard.

One afternoon, after refusing a nap, my son had a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. We were in the cereal aisle, and he wanted Lucky Charms. And Golden Grahams. And Reese’s Puffs. I had the audacity to insist that he choose just one.

As he cried and kicked the floor, it was easy to fixate upon all the ways onlookers might be judging me and my parenting. It was tempting to just go ahead and buy the lot of sugary cereal because at least it would quiet the current situation. I knew his tantrum was louder and more pronounced because he was tired. At first, I began to berate myself for not trying out more strategies to make the nap happen.

My natural inclination was to be more concerned about perception than how I was actually caring for my son. But when I reframed my mindset—my son’s temper tantrum is making another parent feel okay that her child does the same, that she also cannot fully control her kid’s behavior—I could focus more on meeting my son’s actual needs well in the moment.

When my son has pizza sauce smeared all over his face, and there is no wet wipe in sight? When his socks don’t match because all the pairs seem to disappear in the drier? When he’s wearing a size-too-small Snoopy shirt that shows off his belly, but we can’t get rid of it because Snoopy is his favorite? When I arrive at the park playdate with processed cheese crackers rather than healthy, organic snacks because it’s not like he’s going to eat those anyway? When I hand him my phone during our dinner out so my husband and I can have an adult conversation?

All of this is permission. Permission for other moms to do less. To believe that we can love our kids well without living up to the impossible expectations of contemporary motherhood.

Lowering the ridiculous standards for motherhood has to start with someone. Might as well be me. Maybe this small contribution is a form of social justice. I can handle some personal embarrassment if I believe it’s making even the smallest positive shift in the lives of collective mothers.

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