She Knew She Had to Find a Better Balance

Moms who take care of themselves first make the best mothers.

"What kind of a mother is she?"

Barbara Kelly was the chairman of the mother-daughter book club that met every Wednesday night at 7:30, and she was really ticked.

"Out with her husband? Doesn't she know how important it is for her and her daughter to be here tonight? We're discussing 'I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You''"

Barbara, Judy, and Patricia were huddled in the kitchen over the coffee pot so that their daughters couldn't hear what they were whispering about Cindy Cutler, their friend and fellow book club member. Barbara and Cindy had been the co-founders of this book club, which they started last year for a few seventh-grade girls and their moms who knew each other really well. The goal wasn't just educational, but more to give the moms and daughters a chance to talk about important issues like peer pressure and values before the girls went to high school and got swept up in the usual overscheduled pace of teenage life.

"Her priorities are really out of touch. Remember when she turned down the nomination for president of the PTA last month? And she was a shoe-in to get it."

"Can you imagine what an advantage to her children that would have been? We're on the board, and look how it's helped our kids."

"I really wonder sometimes about her idea of what a good mother ought to be."

The women were trying to keep their voices down, but didn't notice that their daughters were eavesdropping and hearing every word they said. Next day during third period break, Barbara Kelly's daughter, Meghan, cornered Cindy's daughter, Teresa Cutler.

"You should have heard what they said about your mom last night."

"What are you talking about?"

"When you didn't show up, the ya-ya sisters really nailed your mom for going out with your dad instead of bringing you to the book club."

"Get out! What's the big deal? It was a special occasion for them."

"Well, they thought she was being a bad mom—something about her priorities being messed up."

That night, after Cindy had finished helping her two younger daughters with their homework and tucking them into bed, Teresa found her mother in her studio working on a new Web site design for a freelance client. Ever since Cindy's husband, Brad, had had his hours cut back at the office, she'd been trying to increase her graphic design business. Ordinarily Teresa tried not to disturb her mom while she was working, but this was important.

"Have a minute, Mom?"

"Of course, Honey. What's up?"

"Well, umm . . . Meghan told me the ya-ya moms were badmouthing you last night because we didn't show up."

"Yeah. They said you weren't being a good mom."

"Oh, for Pete's sake. I told them it was a special anniversary for me and Brad."

"What was it actually, Mom? I know it wasn't your wedding anniversary,- that was in August."

Cindy sat back in her chair and smiled sheepishly. She even blushed a little.

"Your father and I always celebrate November twelfth."

"Why? What's so special about it?"

"First kiss," she blurted out. "We were under the waterfall out in Palm Canyon. We got drenched. It was hilarious. And we made this pledge to one another that we'd always celebrate that date—no matter what. I didn't know that the book club meant so much to you, Sweetie. You know I love being with n you.

"It's no biggie, Mom. I know how it is with you and Dad. I just didn't like what they were saying about you."

"They don't bother me, so don't let it bother you. Give me a hug."

Cindy Cutler knew in her heart that she was a good mom. And for her, a big part of being a good mom was being able to sustain a healthy balance of focus on her children, her relationship with her husband, work, and herself. It wasn't always easy. But she'd seen how many of her girlfriends were going nuts trying to be Supermoms and spending all their time and energy focused only on their kids. So many carpools, tournaments, school events. Monday: scouting. Tuesday: violin and fencing lessons. Wednesday: soccer practice and computer lab. Thursday: jazz. Friday: math tutoring. Saturday: gymnastics and soccer game. Sunday: youth group. In between that were supervising homework, science fair projects, play groups, birthday parties, sleep-overs, ice skating, and just trying to survive.

Cindy had tried to keep up with the other moms in their frenzied mania. She too had reached a point early in her experience as a mother where she had absolutely no time for herself or her husband, whom she adored. Not only that, trying to fit in time for her work as a graphic designer seemed totally impossible, though they could sure use the money. And the worst part was that she had been becoming tense and irritable and starting to take it out on her family.

One Sunday morning when her girls were ages six, four, and one, she had found herself in a screaming fit over the dumbest thing.

"DON'T YOU EVER SPILL JUICE ON THE FLOOR AGAIN! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? CAN'T YOU DO ANYTHING RIGHT?"

And this was directed at her one-year-old!

That was the moment Cindy knew things had to change. She'd just seen one of her wannabe Supermom girlfriends yell the exact same way at her daughter, and Cindy swore she'd never become that kind of parent. She could see now that trying to do too much and be so perfect was bound to backfire. It wasn't good for the kids. It made the moms crazy, so the kids suffered too.

Things have to change, she had said to herself after she calmed down and kissed her one-year-old to make up. From now on, I'm doing what's right for my children by taking care of my whole family. My kids will be best off in a happy, well-balanced home, and they don't need all that extra stress. I'm cutting back on trying to fill every minute of the week.

From then on, Cindy was very careful about what she committed to for herself or her kids. She always made sure there was enough family time together. Because she knew being a good mom requires energy, strength, and stamina, Cindy led weekend bike excursions for the whole family. She made a new rule that the answering machine would have to pick up any calls from 6:00 to 8:30 each night so as to preserve everyone's sanity at family dinner, homework time, and tuck-into-bed time. And she began to take classes in graphic design when the girls were at school to give her some skills to help out with the finances.

Her new philosophy of motherhood began to pay off. Her girls were thriving, her relationship with her husband was great, and she even began to bring in some money on the side. She felt healthier, more energized, and was confident she'd made the right decision. So what if her girls didn't do every single thing all the other kids did? She didn't need to keep up with any Joneses, and besides, the activities her daughters chose were the very things they cared most about. As a result, each girl had developed skills and accomplishments they could be proud of. Teresa's artistic talents were blossoming, Kara was one of the best softball players in the county, and Noreen was becoming an exceptional dancer.

Every once in a while, another mother would shake her head when Cindy declined to participate in a school event. More than a few times, mothers would ask her why she wasn't enrolling her daughters in some hot new class. But Cindy would just laugh and shrug her shoulders.

The first time Cindy really took some heat was just six months ago, when a grassroots coalition had nominated her for presidency of the PTA. It was an important job, and they all thought she was the best person to do it. Cindy was flattered, but she also knew it was huge commitment of time and energy that would take her away from her family for many hours every week.

"I really appreciate the honor but have to decline," she explained. "My time at home is really my top priority."

Her refusal to serve upset quite a number of the other parents. They accused her of being selfish and even lazy, but Cindy stuck to her guns.

A few weeks after the book club incident, Teresa's class was told that each student had to submit an essay about the person they most admired for the annual PTA Hero of the Year Contest. The teachers would read all the selections and pick the top five entries. Then three members of the PTA board would award a $300 first prize.

Teresa knew immediately who her hero would be, but didn't tell a soul who she was writing about. She wrote and rewrote the essay several times, spending hours to make sure it was as good as she could get it. Two weeks after she turned in her essay, she was notified by Mr. Wingate, her English teacher, that she had made the top five. In one more week the board would announce its decision.

The day the prize was to be awarded at a special school assembly, Teresa was crushed when the principal didn't call her name. Not for first, second, or third prize. How could that be, when Mr. Wingate had told her how great her essay was, and all the teachers thought she was sure to get into at least the top three? Teresa was so upset that as soon as the assembly was over, she immediately ran up to her friend Meghan.

"Oh, Meghan, I wrote the coolest essay about my mom," Teresa cried. "I really wanted to win so I could buy her a new leather portfolio to present her designs."

"You won't believe what my mom told me." "What?"

"Did you know she was one of the judges, along with Judy and Patricia?"

"Oh, get real . . . are they still ticked about the book club thing?"

"You got it. My mother told me that what you wrote about your mom being so unselfish and hard working wasn't true. She even told me your mom probably wrote it for you."

Now Teresa was really angry. "You know that's not true, Meghan. You know what a good mom she is."

"I know. Your mom is cool. All the kids talk about how great your mom is. But for some reason my mom really has it in for her."

"This isn't fair. Everything I wrote was true. Do you know where your mom is? I want to straighten this out once and for all."

The two girls went straight to Meghan's house to confront Barbara Kelly.

"Mrs. Kelly, do you have a minute? We really need to talk."

"Of course, Teresa. What's up?"

"I want you to know that I wrote every word of that essay about my mother. And it's all true. I know you don't think she's a good enough mom, but you're wrong."

"I understand, Honey. I know you love your mom. But this was an essay about people who are really unselfish and hardworking."

Teresa shook her head in disbelief. "Right. And that's exactly what my mom is. Where did you ever get the idea she was anything but unselfish and hardworking? My mom does everything for us—and always puts what's best for our family first."

"Teresa, that's really sweet. But haven't you noticed how many more experiences and opportunities all the other girls are given by their mothers compared to you? Don't you sometimes feel deprived?"

Suddenly Meghan piped in, "Yeah, right. Like we really like dong all this dumb stuff. Mrs. Cutler's really neat, Mom. Everybody thinks that, and Teresa's family is really a lot happier than ours, I can tell you. Where did you moms ever get the idea that doing all this stuff was good for us and that's what a good mom should do?"

Barbara was speechless. Her daughter had never said anything like this to her before. She stood aghast as the two girls turned on their heels and left the house.

That night Teresa gave her mom a copy of her essay for the first time. Tears came to Cindy's eyes as she read silently. Her daughter's words confirmed the choice she'd made for her family so many years ago.

"I'm sorry I didn't win the contest, Mom. I wanted to buy you that new portfolio you need as a surprise present for you."

"Oh Honey, the best present you could ever give me is reading what you said. You have no idea how much this means to me, especially this part:"

My mom is my hero. She's pretty different from other moms. She's real. She doesn't do things just because everyone else is doing it. She tunes into what we really need. When she listens, it's like I'm the only person. She's so fun to be with and always takes the time for her family. My mom is a hero because she's the most courageous person I know. She sticks up for what she believes in no matter what other people say. I just hope I can be as good a mom as she's been for me.

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