A Behind-The-Scenes Tour
Today was not a good parenting day.
It was a day when everything felt like a fight: no one wanted to get out of bed in the morning, no one wanted to do their homework when they came home from school, and no one thought my supper looked the least bit appealing.
I wanted to be patient and understanding, but it felt like my reservoirs of patience had run dry. I was stressed because I had too many deadlines looming, too many doctors’ appointments that had to be squeezed in at the least opportune times, too much laundry demanding my attention.
Maybe my kids were responding to my kvetchy cues, or maybe I was responding to theirs, but either way, everything I did was wrong, everything I said was wrong, and by the end of the day, I felt like an abject failure (my kids did not disagree).
When everyone was finally in bed, I collapsed on the couch and moaned to my husband, “I feel like I am coming apart at the seams. What am I getting so wrong? How does everyone else do it?”
My poor husband was as exhausted as I was, but he rustled up enough energy to cluck sympathetically, and at least I felt validated. But I couldn’t shake my very real question: How does everyone else do it?
I can’t be the only one who looks around sometimes and wonders, Am I the only one who never got the mothering manual? Am I the only one who can’t figure out how I’m supposed to find the time to make supper and get the doctors to fill out the towering stack of camp forms?
I know there are others out there who feel like they’ve missed the memo, but I wonder if they’ve all gone into hiding. Because when I look around, I mostly see the many amazing female role models in my life. Some are the women I work with; some are the women I’m related to, and some are the women who live down the block, but what they all have in common is that they baffle me.
How do they do it all?
Some have families much larger than mine, some have careers far more taxing than mine, and some devote hours every week to chessed initiatives, but they all seem to find the time to parent lovingly and patiently while still managing to mail back their response cards on time, while mine just pile up on the kitchen counter (I apologize to all the hosts whose simchos I still haven’t responded to; I’m just waiting for a free minute to get to them!).
That’s why I would give anything to be a fly on the wall in these women’s homes, to sit inconspicuously in their kitchens and simply observe: They can’t possibly be doing it all, so what do they prioritize and what do they let slide? Do they ever allow themselves to crash on the couch with a magazine, or is the only way to run a house effectively to be in go, go, go mode at all times?
And that’s when I have a brilliant idea: What if I could be a fly on their walls?
What if there was some way for me to observe other mothers the way I observed teachers back when I was in seminary – so I could learn (even at this late stage) the tips of the balabusta trade?
When I was in high school, I spent one midwinter vacation at a friend’s house in Los Angeles. We came as a group from Brooklyn, and we roamed the streets of California like quintessential tourists – cameras in one hand, maps in the other – buying silly souvenirs and soaking up the sunlight.
After we pounded the pavement for an hour, a tour promoter stopped us on one corner and asked us if we wanted to ride atop a double decker bus and visit the ritziest neighborhoods in the Hollywood hills. He promised to point out the homes of the most famous actors and actresses and give us a glimpse of how the rich and famous lived.
We turned him down – we needed to save our money for t-shirts that said, “Someone who loves me went to Los Angeles…” – but the offer stayed at the back my mind for more than twenty years until it popped up suddenly to give me the best idea ever:
What if I could take a tour of the homes of the most successful women I know? What if I could get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their daily routines that would help me answer the question that keeps me up at night: How does everyone else do it?
Like an anthropologist studying a foreign civilization, I could carry a clipboard with me, and I could take copious notes, studying where they use their energy and where they let things slide.
How enlightening would it be to discover that there is a method to avoid the madness, some magical way to manage what too often feels unmanageable?
I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince legions of women to open their homes to buses filled with prying eyes (volunteers can contact me at The Jewish Echo), so until my tour is up and running, I’m going to allow myself to imagine the notes that might appear on my clipboard.
They might sound something like this:
Interesting… Mrs. H. doesn’t care about the mess. She ignores the handprints on the glass doors, and it doesn’t bother her that there are dirty bottles in the sink.
No judgment here, but … Mrs. Z doesn’t care about homework. She insists that the kids learn more than enough during the hours they are in school, and it isn’t worth the stress of getting all of them to sit down and do math problems that stress them all out. Let them play instead.
And what do you know…Mrs. J. doesn’t attend simchos. When she gets home from work every evening, she is already exhausted, and she needs to conserve the energy she has left for her husband and her children.
I’d bet I’d discover all sorts of useful tidbits: Mrs. B. buys takeout for supper twice a week. Mrs. D. has more cleaning help than she can afford, but it’s a small price to pay to maintain her sanity. Mrs. P. tells her super athletic kids that they can’t play baseball on Sunday afternoons because she can’t clone herself to be in three places at once to manage all their carpools. And Mrs. L.’s kids are more than ready to start with orthodontist appointments, but their teeth will have to stay crooked a little bit longer, because right now, she doesn’t have time to drive them there every month.
And, most shocking of all, Mrs. G., the one with the perfect house and the perfect kids in the perfectly-matched clothing, she also collapses on the couch and cries to her husband that she is coming apart at the seams, because sometimes – even for the superhuman among us – it all can feel like too much.
Honestly, it shouldn’t take a behind-the-scenes tour or an anthropological investigation for me to accept the reality: There’s no magical method for managing it all.
On so many days, it’s an impossible math. We add too much to our plates because we have to, and the only way to survive is to subtract something from our plates too. Instead of beating myself up about the things I let slide, I need to pat myself on the back for being brave enough to prioritize.
This way, when the tour bus stops at my house, my visitors will forgive the pile of camp forms and the bills waiting to be paid and the response cards waiting to be mailed, and instead cheer a mother who isn’t doing it all but is doing the best she can.