“Should”ing All Over Family Memories

My back ached as I stood at the kitchen counter, measuring and dumping ingredients to make our annual Christmas cookies, listening with aggravation to the chorus louder than our background Christmas music: “My turn!” “I go first!” “Move!”

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I had already ruined the first batch of sugar cookies, rushing into a drop cookie instead of roll-out recipe. They were crumbled and misshapen with burned edges: an anti-Pinterest fail. My husband and I both running on fumes from two weeks of 2 a.m. awakenings with the preschooler, we were still committed to giving our children the holiday experience of baking cookies that we deliver to neighbors and friends.

As often as this discrepancy has occurred between my idealized vision of our family activity and its chaotic, stressful reality, I maintain hope. Every time. Pumpkin patches. Easter egg hunts. Family movie night. Museums. Their own birthday parties. Baking with children. Exposing our kids for the first time to (fill-in-the-blank). It all sounds great. It all SHOULD be great. When will I learn?

A friend described a hike with her two sons, ages 6 and 4, in the beautiful Rocky mountains. The weather was perfect, the scenery unparalleled. What a nice way to spend a weekend morning for this family who are those natural outdoorsy, Colorado-born types. As you may have guessed, the boys were not on the same page of what this experience could have/should have been as they added their complaints, whining, and tears to that fresh mountain air. My friend and her husband bravely persevered, deciding “Not this time! You are not ruining this for us this time!” Mom and Dad remained calm and quiet, and kept walking. They made it to the top of the mountain and back without a major incident. It may not have been the family hike they envisioned when they decided on it that morning, but they felt like they won some pride and dignity for themselves as parents in the face of potential disaster.

As a psychologist, I work with people on the dangers of focusing on “shoulds” because it often becomes a set-up for emotions that add stress (disappointment, frustration, blame, guilt). But I don’t know what it is about being a Mom that makes this so hard. Is it decades of exposure to cheesy movies portraying unrealistic families? Is it the current barrage of photos posted across the various social media platforms, suggesting that our friends and loved ones are clearly better architects of cherished family moments? Do we somehow experience these discrepancies between fantasy and reality as a failure as a parent, fitting into an all-too-common narrative that we keep falling short?

Well, on that afternoon of baking Christmas cookies, I used my waning energy to take a step back and challenge my automatic label of this as a “disaster.” And when I paid attention, I saw my three children in their aprons, dancing joyously (and raucously – 3-year-old slapping his butt in his favorite inappropriate dance move) to “Jingle Bell Rock,” full of holiday excitement. And I realized that is what mattered, and they would probably remember that feeling right there, not some burned cookies.

So maybe we have these idealized visions of making family memories, because we really do remember the positive parts from our own childhoods – the feelings of closeness, tradition, and connection. I’m sure I threw tantrums and my parents got frustrated with me, but I don’t remember that. I remember looking forward every year to the day my Mom and I made cookies together, icing them with homemade red and green frosting, and eating them with my Dad, the cookie taster. This reflection is what truly gives me hope, and may even help me stay farther away from the “shoulds” and just let it be what it is: chaos and joy, conflict and connection, all wrapped up together in making this moment a memory.

For the record, I took a picture of those awfully ugly sugar cookies and posted them on Facebook. I figured I could do my small part of adding some truth to the landscape of manufactured reality, admitting the non-photo ready parts of our day, and taking down the pressure even one small notch.

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