At midnight, the day before my son’s very first day of preschool, I committed a mortal parenting sin. I chose not to make a sign for his first-day-of-school photos. Now, this may seem like a minor offense – at best. After all, I wasn’t sending him to bed without his dinner.
But if you underestimate how momentous this decision was, you clearly missed the barrage of back-to-school Facebook posts by parents of small children. Even among my fairly low-key friends, there was a parade of increasingly elaborate signs, ranging from cute printouts all the way up to actual chalkboards.
But me? I bowed out of all of it.
When I posted about my decision on Facebook, my friends offered me alternatives. I could make one for the second day and pretend it was the first! I could Photoshop it in! As much as I appreciated their creativity, I didn’t take any of them.
And I didn’t make a sign this year either.
That’s because I’m sick of being “should-ed” to death. The sign thing may seem minor, but it’s one example of the many things moms “should” do for their families. In fact, American society asks moms to have so much on our plates that we choke trying to eat it all. From crafts for every occasion to beach bodies to simplifying, the list of what we “should” do is both endless and contradictory. Just look at the cover of any magazine targeted to moms at the grocery store checkout line. Right next to headlines trumpeting perfect cupcakes are bolded promises claiming to teach you to lose five pounds in two days!
These expectations give us no room to breathe, much less space for what actually matters to us. “Should” takes away our autonomy. It makes our parenting decisions requirements instead of choices.
So let’s ditch all the shoulds. Seriously. Just try to remove that unfortunate word from your vocabulary and put those heavy expectations aside for a moment.
But what do we replace it with? How about letting all of those values and desires surface that the expectations were crowding out? Personally, when I replace “should” with “want” – as in “I want to make a sign for my son’s first day of school” – everything becomes much clearer. It reveals why I feel like I should do the activity in the first place, whether it’s genuine interest or just pressure.
In the case of the sign, substituting “should” for “want” made my decision quite obvious. Simply, I realized I didn’t want to make a sign. It didn’t fulfill any deep value of mine, provide a service to anyone else, or even offer anything for my kid. Making a sign didn’t mean that I loved him any more or any less. Changing out that one word showed that I was only thinking about it out of base societal obligation.
When you make the “want” switch, everyone’s response is going to be different. Some parents may enjoy decorating adorable chalkboards and genuinely want to make their kids signs. We salute your bad-ass craftiness. Others will be like me and feel a weight lifted from them.
More importantly, everyone’s “wants” will differ, depending on your values, interests, and talents. Personally, I want (and do) grow my own vegetables and make my kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. But many moms have zero interest in doing either of those things. Thankfully, removing the oppressive “shoulds” that hang over us can make space for our diversity to shine.
That night, I chose to follow what was important to me and my family instead of what would look good on Facebook. The next day, we took some photos, cried a little, and sent my son into brand-new classroom. I don’t regret a thing.
What shoulds in parenting are holding you back from embracing what’s really important to you?
Shannon Brescher Shea is a mom of two young sons who’s just trying to make a difference. Follow her adventures in parenting, living the green life, and exploring this big, beautiful world at We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.