I see that sheet of paper every time I drop the girls off at preschool. There’s a green one in my older daughter’s classroom and a yellow one in my younger daughter’s. Each page has three columns: one for your name, one for the date, and one for the color of Play-Doh you’re going to make for the entire preschool class.
In almost three years of sending my girls to this preschool, which I absolutely adore, I have never once signed up to make Play-Doh. There is just nothing appealing about it to me, and besides, there is no question that I would screw it up. (Don’t tell me how easy it is; I can burn water, people.) I try to compensate in other ways–I volunteer for various tasks that don’t require me to go into (or even near) my kitchen, and I read stories and do crafts for Hanukkah and Passover. I know the school has enough Play-Doh (or at least I think they do), and I know that I am contributing in other ways, but I just can’t seem to shake the guilt I feel over all of it.
A few weeks ago, I Facebooked a picture of my daughters at home, cutting multi-colored lumps of Play-Doh into a million little pieces. My dear friend and fellow Kveller Tamara Reese left the following comment:
“OH MY LORD. YOU LET THEM MIX THE COLORS!? You are a better Mama than I. I make one huge batch of ONE color and that’s it. I cannot deal with color mixing.”
Her sweet (and slightly self-deprecating) words nearly knocked me off my seat. It had never once occurred to me that letting the girls run wild with a few small containers of Play-Doh from the sale shelf at CVS qualified me for “better Mama” status. I had always, always assumed that the better Mama is the one who makes the Play-Doh (which I told Tamara in the same Facebook thread).
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that interaction. Not only did I greatly appreciate Tam’s kindness, but I clearly needed the shift in perspective. I spend so much of my personal and professional time immersed in the parenting literature, and so much of it is about what we should be doing, from making our own Play-Doh and staying home with our kids to making sure that they are doing enough age-appropriate household chores while also getting enough unstructured playtime. I inevitably end up feeling like I’m colossally screwing up this whole parenting gig.
And so I find myself clinging to these moments that remind me of a fundamental truth that I so easily lose sight of–there are many, many ways to be a good parent. And at the core of all of them is kindness. The thing about Play-Doh is that at the end of the day, it’s just a lump of clay. It doesn’t matter whether it came from your own kitchen or the pharmacy shelf. The beauty of Play-Doh is that we parents have taken the time and energy to get it in the first place and then hand it over to our children, even as we know that they will mash it out, dry it up, smoosh it into the rug, and then feed it to the cat or perhaps their little sister.
Ever since I realized this, I have started to see the kindness in parents all around me, every day. I saw it in the weary smiles of so many mothers and fathers ushering their energetic children through the crowds at the local aquarium on a busy day during a school vacation. I see it in parents who bring their kids to the library after a long day at school and work and sit and read them book after book. And, from time to time, I remember to see it in myself–in the tiny lumps of multi-colored play-doh I’m still finding under the cabinet in our dining room, in the trips I make to the grocery store across town for the only brand of cheese that my daughter will eat, in the 87th reading (this week) of “Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet.”
I saw the sign-up sheets at preschool drop-off again this morning, and I noticed the pangs of guilt are almost gone. No, I’m not a perfect mother, but I’m trying to remember that just as there is no possible way to be a perfect mother, there are a million different ways to be a good one. Thank you for reminding me of that, friend, and for the much-needed perspective. And to the rest of you, whether you make the play-doh or buy it, you’re doing a great job. (Or as Tamara might say, #YouAreAGoodMama.)