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The Pain of Picture Book Perfect

My alarm went off and I rolled over and turned it off. Again. As the time on the clock began to materialize I grumbled at myself. I’d once again slept through my chance for re-charging before my day of responsibilities began.

While I squeezed the paste on my toothbrush, I was still lamenting that I didn’t get to meditate or do yoga or sit in silence with my cup of coffee. I caught myself, my first waking thoughts coming from a place of scarcity—"not enough of”—the opposite of gratitude. Ok, It will have to be a toothbrushing meditation this morning. Minty foam filled my mouth as I thought about our day.

Ok, I know I’m extra fried this week, so we just need to take today slow. A good solution to the stress of getting everyone through the morning routine: we won’t go anywhere today that has a specific start time. Hopefully this will also create less moments of toddler resistance and my impatience. -- *spit*-- Ooh! She can ride her new scooter to the library where we can quietly ride books. Even better! We can stop by this cheap, little breakfast joint on the way so I don’t even have to worry about making breakfast or dishes. --*gurgle*-- Hmm, books and brunch. This would be a good day after all.

It seemed like a thoughtful solution to my burnt-out place.

One block into our walk, my shoulders began to ache from the baby strapped to my chest and the loaded diaper bag that kept slipping off my shoulder. After two blocks of scooting, the hunger in my stomach quickly usurped my “let the toddler lead” philosophy. I coaxed and prodded my resistant daughter and her scooter along the last block until we finally arrived at the little corner cafe. Wafted by the smell of coffee as I opened the glass door, I took a deep breath and saw what I took to be confirmation of my decision in the first booth. Another mother sat calmly eating breakfast with her two kids, and I swear, the only ray of sunshine in the sky that day was highlighting their angelic scene. Her newborn was snuggled in her arms, against her wrinkle-free sweater, while her son colored quietly next to her. We exchanged the knowing, mama-solidarity-smile with each other as I passed to sit in our booth. Which ended up looking more like this: me, balancing a grabby 4-month old baby on my lap, trying to keep my hot cup of coffee within my reach but not hers, meanwhile, not noticing my bench-mate who had grabbed the salt shaker to great her own pile of “snow” on the table. We sat across from our chaotically strewn collection of coats, hats, scarves, and bags illuminated by a dingy, swinging light. For effect, we’ll just say it was flickering too.

I held out hope for quietly reading books at the library. Until we opened the doors to an entryway crammed with strollers. I had not realized there was a special Halloween event that morning, which we were promptly invited to join. Unaware she was the only kid not in a costume, my daughter excitedly joined the drove of kids climbing the stairs to the story-time room while her introverted mother died just a little inside.

I wasn’t even pretending to keep my cool by the time we walked home, a diaper bag now crammed with heavy books and a kid stuffed with sugar. My daughter’s antics were on the rise and I knew there was a correlation between her behavior and my mood, but I didn’t have the energy to be compassionate about it. What was supposed to be a sweet, morning together ended with all three of us in tears at some point.

I’m an idealist. I’ve carried this trait with me throughout life, across many different contexts. As a strength, this trait helps me provide constructive criticism to the institutions and communities I’m part of and guides my value-driven life. When taken too far, though, it comes across as an inflexible, demanding attitude that makes people feel judged or like I need to “just chill out.”

In an activity once, I was asked to look at a list of emotions and select the one I felt the most often. Although I’d never thought about it before, the answer popped out quickly: disappointment. When my standards are placed sky-high, real life often lands below them. It’s manageable when this disappointment is directed at a restaurant experience or a poorly taught class. You just fill out a survey, leave a poor review. But what about when that disappointment is directed at your spouse? Your children? Your own identity? That’s not so easy to manage and hurts everyone involved.

I had done it again. Stacked expectations so tall next to my day, that it was cast in a shadow of disappointment.

Back at the apartment, I finished rinsing the last dish from lunch, glancing at the clock to see that despite all my impatience with a meandering toddler, we were still right one schedule for nap time. Did it even matter if we weren’t? I found my daughter in her bedroom playing and got down on my knees, holding her hands.

“Hey honey, I’m sorry Mommy was cranky today. I wasn’t very kind.” She grew silent and just looked at me, unsure what to do with the moment. “Do you forgive me?”

Although she might not have understood what was happening, she understood that a question was just asked, so she gave her most 2 year-old answer: “NO!” and then starting laughing and running away. “Mommy, read me a book.”

I followed her to her bookshelf where she selected one of her favorites, before snuggling in my lap. Finally, we were reading books quietly. It was a good day.

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