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Challenge: Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

Today My Kids Taught Me Why It's OK to Cry Over Spilled Lemonade (and Over All My Parenting Mistakes)

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A few years ago, I packed up all my belongings, cleaned out my house, and hauled everything across town to set up camp for 1 year at my parents’. My husband, my two kids, and I moved in an effort to pay off over $250K in student loan and consumer debt we'd racked up years earlier attending graduate school simultaneously. After we started a family, the debt stayed with us, and completely dragged us down. Eventually, we made some major priority shifts that kicked us into gear so we could free ourselves of its heavy burden on our relationship, and on our entire lives.

They say moving is one of the most stressful life events — right up there with getting married and starting a new job. I knew parts of it would be rough when we made our decision to go all out on debt repayment, but I also knew we had to make a major shift in our financial plan if we wanted to ever feel a little freer. Once we signed on the dotted line, there was a lot to do to make it all happen, from arranging cleaners to buying moving supplies and getting everything packed up in time.

I wasn’t trying to type A myself through that major life change, but I sure was good at it. I made the checklists. I checked off all the boxes. It felt good to be organized. Even so, 2 months after accepting our tenants, making child care shifts, and getting everything else arranged in a logical manner, it all hit me full force emotionally.

It hit my kids too.

All their toys were in boxes, and half the rooms in our house became off-limits that last week to accommodate drying touch-up paint. My girls tried their best for about 2 hours the morning their playroom was cordoned off to find some- thing else to do. The fix-it guy maneuvered around them, trying to avoid their antics as I unsuccessfully encouraged them to get creative. Then one of my girls hit some kind of behavioral limit. A shoe was thrown. Some hair was pulled. There was an all-out screaming event held by the toddler. She should have charged admission it was so dramatic.

I piled them in the car, understanding full well that kids sometimes express their frustrations and stress in less than ideal ways.

“Let’s go to the berry farm,” I said, imagining myself peacefully meandering through rows of blueberry bushes with a wagon of equally serene children behind me. “We can grab some lunch on the way.”

The kids were ecstatic, ready to spend a more enjoyable afternoon with a less distracted mom. We stopped at our favorite burrito bowl place, adding 3 lemonades to the order just because. I could feel the mood lift, my littlest now happily skipping along, holding my hand. She swung herself up onto my arm, making monkey noises as she attempted to climb me. The drink carrier tipped as I tried to set it down on the sidewalk so I could rearrange my crew and our food. Off we went again, past the shops and other families enjoying their days.

I’d almost made it to the car when the first lemonade fell out of the carrier, tumbling to the ground as my daughter tried again to use my body as a jungle gym, despite my admonishments. I set the carrier on the hood, presumably safe from mishap while I strapped everyone into their car seats and took a big breath.

I let my guard down too soon, though. The second lemonade made its downward turn as it slid across the wet hood, exploding like a yellow bomb as it hit the pavement. I grabbed the carrier just before the final cup met its demise, only to have the lid flip off when I tried to set it into my cup holder. Before I could catch it, a sweet, sticky film covered the console. It splashed onto the passenger seat and down to the floorboards. Lemonade was everywhere. Everywhere. I felt a low, guttural sound come from somewhere around my mid-chest. And then I felt myself start to cry.

This was not a controlled, adult, tears around my eyes kind of sniffle. It was a full-on, body shaking, sobbing into my steering wheel kind of cry— the kind that makes your kids really quiet, the kind that makes you really quiet after 5 seconds because you realize you are surrounded only by the sound of silence. It was only spilled lemonade, but somehow it meant more.

“Mommy, why are you crying?” my oldest whispered.

“Yeah, mom, only kids are supposed to cry,” I heard my baby girl quip.

“No, mommies can cry,” she responded. “Especially when they’re having a hard day. Mommy is having a hard day. All of her lemonade spilled, and it ruined the car. And we’re moving, Sissy. Moving can be very hard.”

“Oh, yeah,” she answered back. “It’s OK for adults to cry about that. Don’t worry, Mommy, it will be all right.”

I sat listening to my very young children have a very grown-up conversation about the way life works as I pulled myself together. I looked back at them, feeling a little sheepish that the only adult in the car was having the most difficulty being wise. I saw their earnest faces smiling back at me and I remembered this truth: Our children learn just as much from our real emotions, from our in-the-moment mistakes, even from our flat-out parenting failures, as they do from the scripted, controlled learning experiences we arrange or manipulate for them. When they see us being vulnerable about the way we feel, they can be honest about the way they feel too.

Now that I was a bit more composed, I explained myself:

“You know, Mommy is really excited about our move and what that’s going to mean for our family — that we’re working on a goal to spend more time together and to be stronger as a team. You’re right, though. All the little parts and pieces that have to come together to make this move happen are some- times overwhelming. Those lemonades falling — one after another— was what they call ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Every once in a while, your body needs you to just let your emotions out a little so they don’t keep getting bottled up. When you least expect it, sometimes the kettle lets off a little steam. Just like that happens for you guys sometimes, it happens for Mommy too.”

I watched their little heads nod, like old sages. My kids are not always that attentive, but, in that moment, they sure were. I had a captive audience, maybe because I shocked them a bit with my sob fest but, hopefully, also because they truly know that feelings are OK.

They know they’re loved no matter what their emotions, however mixed up they feel. They know it’s all right to work through all the complex feelings that come with making big changes. They know it’s OK for things to be not all bad, not all good, but somewhere in between. When you are authentic with your kids, they learn that authenticity is something to be desired.

Now, let’s not take this too far. I’m not suggesting you let your kids in on every deep, dark emotion you ever have, or that you overshare your mental play-by-play on a regular basis.

Obviously, sobbing through our days is neither productive nor healthy for our children. What I am suggesting is this: it’s important to let our kids learn how to be strong and brave, to get past their fears, to build resilience. It’s equally important that they learn how to be vulnerable.

I’m suggesting we show them that when they’re weak, they’re still lovable— that they’re still strong, even when they don’t feel like they are — that accepting and working through our emotions is another form of developing that all important grow-from-your-struggles skill, that they’re part of a community that loves them no matter what.

The dinner table replay of the day’s events was pretty epic that evening, but what was most impressive was the way my kids jumped in as I summarized the story to my husband. He sat there wide-eyed as I recounted the tumbling drinks, the lemonade bath, and the crazy conversation that ensued.

“Mommy lost her marbles a little bit this afternoon,” I laughed to my husband.

The toddler piped up quickly as she slurped her noodles off the fork. “Yeah, but we helped her find them again.”

Yes, baby girl, I thought. You sure did.

This is a modified excerpt from The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself (American Academy of Pediatrics, May 2021).

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