Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parenthood and perfectionism are a tough combination.  Because there's always a new challenge right around the corner, it's virtually impossible for a parent who tends toward perfectionism and unhealthy self-criticism to live up to her own expectations.  I battle this regularly, often measuring our family, and myself as a mother, against an unrealistic ideal that I've created.  This time of year, when I'm working overtime to make the holidays magical and ensure that Little Brother's Christmas birthday does not get lost in the shuffle, that sort of noise becomes really loud in my head.  I'm not doing enough, I tell myself.  The house isn't decorated enough, we haven't baked enough, we haven't seen enough lights, we haven't done enough crafts, we haven't made enough gifts, we haven't focused enough on the meaning of Christmas, we haven't spent enough quality time together, we haven't stayed in touch with friends well enough, and on and on and on.  Next thing I know, my to-do list has grown into something truly unachievable, and I all I can think about is the impossibility of it all.

I know what I need to do.  I have to bring myself back.  A few deep breaths, a moment in the sun and some fresh air, a cup of tea, and I'm all set to RESET.  The only way out is to change my outlook.  Instead of what I haven't done and can't done, I need to think about what I have done and am doing.  Instead of the unachievable ideal, I need to focus on what I'm doing right, what I'm giving my family and what I'm doing for others.  Because really isn't that the better measure of success? 

In the spirit of resetting and reframing, I want to tell you something that I've done right -- I am raising a family of volunteers.  My children each began volunteering regularly at age three, and now they view community service as something we do.  In our family, we have blue eyes, we read each night before bed, we put a fairy on top of the Christmas tree, and we volunteer.  Community service has become part of the fabric of our family, and I am so very proud of that.

Organizing reading material at Operation School Bell.

Marking storm drains for the City Watershed Department.

When my daughter was a toddler, and the perfectionism noise in my head started to become unbearably loud this time of year, I began looking for a way we, as a family, could get out in the community and help some people.  Not by giving money -- we already did that -- but by using our time and our talents to do something.  I had grand hopes of involving friends and their young children.  Wouldn't the holidays be brighter if instead of buying each other gifts, we could come together and do some good in our community?  I was terribly disappointed to find that volunteering with children was almost unheard of in my community.

The next year I looked again and was thrilled to discover a nonprofit startup with a mission of creating local volunteer opportunities for families.  I invited myself to lunch with the founder and asked how I could help.  I knew this was something important -- to our family and scores of others, to local nonprofits who didn't yet know how much families could help them, to community members who benefit from the good work that nonprofits do.  I began volunteering behind the scenes (working mostly on funding strategy and grants), and we soon began volunteering as a family.  Now, thanks to Little Helping Hands and the many nonprofits and local organizations LHH partners with, we are volunteers

Helping maintain the park where Mr. Great and I got married.

I knew, as everyone does, that volunteering is something we should all try to do, like eating veggies and flossing our teeth.  What I didn't quite realize was how volunteering would inform the ways in which our children view the world around them.  Our volunteer experiences have provided a foundation for talking about difficult topics (like homelessness, hunger, child abuse, refugees, disaster assistance).  As our children become more aware of imperfect and unfair aspects of our world, they can find some balance in knowing that good people are working hard to help find solutions.  They are experiencing all sorts of ways people can and do help their communities, and it has become natural for them to think about how they, and others, can make a difference.

Making Mother's Day flowers for moms with hospitalized children.

Painting over graffiti for the City.

When confronted with others in need, my children don't turn away or pretend not to see, as so many adults seem to.  No, they ask what we can do to help.  Because they know that even small children who can't yet read can help.  Families, together, can help. 

Helping maintain city parks.

Cleaning trash from a beautiful local landmark.

Bagging groceries at a food pantry.

Making thank you cards for the American Red Cross.

We've even gotten the grandparents involved.  On some school holidays, instead of going to the movies or playing games, Big Sister and Oma volunteer together.

Assembling backpacks for Project HELP.

Preparing food for the hungry at Caritas.

We have not hung lights on our house, and I still haven't found our tree skirt.  We haven't baked cookies, and I've still got loads of gifts to buy and wrap.  But you know what?  This family has done a lot of good.  As Mr. Great and I said in our wedding vows so many years ago, together we are stronger.  Together we are making a difference.  That's what really matters.

Breaking down computers for recycling at Goodwill.

Making dinner at Ronald McDonald House.

Helping food pantry recipients.

Making visual aids for Komen Foundation.

Last year, Big Sister did so much volunteering that she was honored with an award.  A trophy!  And a certificate from the mayor thanking her for her service.  Little Brother got a certificate too, and a ribbon.  Hard evidence that we're doing something right here.

This special kid was very proud, and we were very proud of her.  She took her trophy to school for show-and-tell.  She told her Brownie troop about her award and the work she'd done to earn it.

I have to tell you that I am every bit as proud of myself, too, for committing to spend much of our family time in a productive way, for making it happen, for modeling the importance of volunteering to my children.  They know that I spend some evenings helping Little Helping Hands in its search for funding and grants, they know that I help lead the Brownies troop and that I help organize charity projects at my office.  We are volunteers.  They know.

As I try to reset, reframe, and refocus, and as those not-enough thoughts invade my mind during this busy time, this is what I want to remember.  

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