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Challenge: Back to School

Mom Success: I'm Shooting for 80/20

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Except for a year or two in my parenting tenure, I’ve always been a working mom. Sometimes part-time, sometimes from home, sometimes full-time, but always working. With five kids, this means putting my head down and handling it while they are at school. Which also means I am not a weekly volunteer in their classrooms or the teacher workroom or any of that biz, because, as I have to remind my kids constantly, I have a job. This technicality never seems to connect with my spawn:

Child: Can you bring me Chick-fil-A for lunch?

Me: No, son, I’m working.

Child: Doing what? What do you even do?

Me: OH MY GOSH.

So I prioritize the special stuff: parties, field trips, programs, and award assemblies. However, while I’m pretty decent at getting the dates right, the details often turn into white noise. If I assimilate the date, the starting time, and the entry fee, that feels like a mothering win. This is the best I can do. (“I’m so sorry, but I cannot make the class banner for the parade. Why not? Oh, because I don’t want to.”)

Anyway, when my daughter Sydney was in fourth grade, she had a field trip to . . . something somewhere. Listen, I am good at other things. I knew driving parents had to follow the buses pulling out at 8:30 a.m. Great. I showed up to the school parking lot with all the other moms and two or three SAHDs and proceeded to return phone calls in the car, which all my girlfriends and colleagues know is the only time I speak on the phone. (Leave me a message, and be prepared to never hear from me again.)

Two buses pulled out, and I got in line behind the other cars and put my mind on autopilot as we headed south down I-35. Three phone calls later, I started thinking, Good night! Where are we going? What was this field trip? Something about government? Or maybe astronomy? I pulled alongside the buses just to make sure I hadn’t lost the caravan, but sure enough, our school name was emblazoned on the side.

After an hour and a half, we pulled into the San Antonio Zoo, which I surely didn’t remember as a pertinent detail. I parked, sauntered over to the buses, and watched the entire fifth grade contingency pile out. Which was delightful. For fifth graders. But my kid was in fourth, and I had inadvertently followed the wrong grade, not to the correct destination ten minutes from school, but to another city.

I will not type out the curses I screamed, as they are unbecoming even to a trucker, but I sped eighty miles an hour to the correct location after despertexting (desperate texting) my girlfriend something that sounded like, “Where the *@! are you guys??” I missed the entire movie (Ah! A movie! About whales! At the IMAX!) and finally caught up with the fourth graders at the after-picnic in the park. Helpfully, I’d also promised my friend Becky to be the surrogate field trip mom for her daughter, since Becky couldn’t go.

So I found my two forlorn charges eating their sad sandwiches, motherless, worried that I had either wrecked or run off to Mexico. While my fellow elementary moms were sprawled on the ground guffawing that I drove six zip codes away, Sydney said, “Mom, me and Makenna were like the orphaned baby whales in the movie.”

Jesus, be a fence.*

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This is what she looked like in 4th grade and now she is a senior and I need someone to come hold me.


Have mercy and have grace, parenting can be such a circus. I positively peaked as a mother in the years leading up to actual motherhood. I made careful observations about these whackadoo children having fits in Target and guaranteed myself, my friends and family, and the universe that I would never, ever be “one of those moms with one of those kids.” I would have every manner of my crap together. And then I birthed and adopted five children and accidentally drove to San Antonio for a field trip and one time launched a wooden spoon against the kitchen wall in rage and also once threw all my kids’ dirty laundry in the backyard in an insane, maniacal blaze of glory.

So that worked out well.

In my last book, For the Love, I mentioned that my goal now as a mom is to be “mostly good.” I expanded that overachieving worldview in the latest book, Of Mess and Moxie, by clarifying that I am shooting for 80/20: If I manage an 80% Good Mom rate with a 20% Mom Fail rate, that feels like a raging success. I’m also willing to accept 70/30 while we’re talking about it, so now you see where the bar actually is, and thank you for just letting me live.

Here is what I’m learning in the gritty, day-in-and-day-out grind of raising real human beings: if we get seven or eight things right out of every ten, it’s enough. Good lord, our parents didn’t even put us in seat belts and smoked with the windows rolled up. Every mom I know is working as hard as she can, trying as hard as she can, and loving as deeply as she can. No one is phoning this in.

The 80/20 rule isn’t lazy or disinterested; it’s just real life. Two or three intentions out of ten are going to go sideways, because they just will. Two or three reactions out of every ten are going to go off the rails, because everyone involved in this parent/child equation is a human person. Two or three moments out of every ten are going to be disappointing or boring or fail to live up to expectations, because we are not living in a 30-minute Disney show where everything always works out.

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3 out of my 5 kids are teenage boys, so we do things like Top Golf where there is a bar nearby.

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On a college tour in Boston. I regret "giving them wings." I take it all back. Make it stop.

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It's a good thing she is so cute, because she has enough words for 75 children.

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I held this sign up last week any time a child asked me ONE MORE QUESTION. This falls in the 20% category.


Here are some “Hatmaker 80/20” suggestions if you need a new game plan:

Back to School Shopping

80%: You find almost everything on each child’s supply list, you went to three stores to do so, you didn’t fall apart when 7983 parents and their spawn were crammed into the same two aisles at Walmart vying for the same products, and you made it home alive.

20%: You spent around $25,284 dollars which will be hard on the marriage, and you had one spectacular blowup when there was not one “folder with brads” to be found in four counties. Screw the folders with brads.

Getting Back on a School Schedule

80%: All your children have now been outfitted and trained on their own personal alarm clocks, you laid out clothes and backpacks the night before, and you put despondent kids to bed even though it is still bright outside. Look at you winning!

20%: Because you allowed your home life to resemble a frat house all summer, your children are still awake at 11:51pm and the first week of school has them so cranky, overstimulated, and exhausted, three out of three kids are dead asleep on the couch Friday at 4:15pm. (That last detail could also be filed under “winning.”)

Getting Back on a Normal Family’s Eating Schedule

80%: You used your handy Plan to Eat app and meal-planned two weeks of healthy dinners including an ingredient list and intentional use of leftovers. It is time. You will restore order to this family rhythm starting with homemade sit-down dinners. Out comes the Instant Pot. You purchase grass-fed beef and arugula.

20%: Because the children have been eating Pringles for breakfast at 11:35am and basically an unidentified diet all summer, they are not accustomed to the arugula. They risk their lives by complaining after you used your meal-planning apps. Their bodies don’t remember how to eat healthy food at normal times. “Can we just have cereal?” Good times.

We try our best. We work hard. We attempt to feed the offspring arugula. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Let me fill you in a little secret: it isn’t always working at Jessica’s house either, no matter what she puts on Instagram. We are all doing mostly okay. Our kids are loved and safe, and they live in homes where someone is crazy about them. They will mostly forget about all the things we got wrong, but they’ll always remember how it felt to grow up cherished by their parents. That is the story that sticks, the one that lasts. Even if we hover around the 70/30 mark, like my husband Brandon insisted in college: “C’s get degrees!”

100% is a lie. Get that straight if nothing else. Failure and disappointment is part of the human experience including parenting, good intentions, and being a kid. It is what we do with failure that matters, what we teach our kids to do. It means lots of apologies and conversations. It means saying “I overreacted” or “I dropped the ball” or “I forgive you.” It looks like picking up the pieces of something that accidentally fell apart and putting it back together imperfectly. That is basically what every good family is: an 80/20 mix of mess held together with duct tape.

So approach your little family like that, Moms. Have your duct tape ready. And in the event you unintentionally drive to San Antonio for a field trip, I suggest you just stay put, find your favorite restaurant, and have a glass of wine with lunch. That inevitable 20% might as well at least be fun.

* Awesome Parent Fail story excerpted from Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life, now available everywhere!

Related video featuring Jen Hatmaker on TODAY:

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