Over the winter break, illness ran through my house. It really took a toll on my ambitious make-the-holidays-magical-for-the-kids to-do list. No decorating sugar cookies or wrapping up homemade caramels in wax paper squares, no sending out cards or visiting Santa Claus.
Christmas Eve dinner consisted of a pot of spaghetti that a friend lovingly delivered when she heard of my woes. Rather than gathering around the piano for caroling, my kids danced around the kitchen to the Chipmunk Christmas Album. In our homebound state, my daughter spent hours making homemade presents while I caught up on laundry.
And it was magically, mercifully good enough.
When I talked to the junior class about the concept of time management last fall, I encouraged them to embrace the phrases “better than nothing” and “good enough.”
Life is busy -- sometimes with ordinary responsibilities and sometimes with unexpected demands. So we have to make choices. No, we get to make choices. How do we choose to spend our time? What matters most to us?
Reflecting on what really matters to us can help us make "good enough" parenting choices that align with that vision -- especially during tough times. Is exercising important to me? A dance party with my kids after dinner is better than nothing. Is reading to my kids important to me? One picture book before bed is better than nothing. Is staying connected to my extended family important to me? A text to a sibling I haven’t talked to in a while is better than nothing.
I adopted this phrase from Laura Vanderkam — a mother of four, time management expert, and author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. (You can listen to a wonderful podcast interviewing her here). She reminds her readers that “something is better than nothing” when it comes to forming good habits. She wrote, “letting go of big expectations in the short run can allow for more productivity in the long run. And the long run is really what it’s all about.”
As I wrote in my PBS column this month, I’m not making a bunch of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, as I look ahead, I am looking for small steps we can take, as a family, to become a little smarter, stronger and kinder.
When I adopt a better-than-nothing attitude, it helps me celebrate the little things I am doing that match up with my core parenting values -- the meals we do eat together at the table, the books we read before bed, the rocks we drop in our gratitude jar, the moments when we roll up our sleeves to clean the house together. It helps me find peace in “good enough.”
“Good enough” helps attune us to the small, simple moments in our lives. You can’t avoid stress -- nor should you try -- but you can make it a habit to notice the little beautiful moments that fill our days. In her book How to Be a Happier Parent, KJ Dell’Antonia writes, “Humans are hardwired to focus on the negative. When we train our brains to notice and absorb everyday pleasures--the moments when we are safe and snug and warm with our families around us--we gain a deeper reservoir of joy to bolster us when things get rough.”
It turns out that practicing gratitude retrains the brain. Our brains are wired to give more weight to negative experiences — your brain is trying to protect you, so it wants you to avoid danger. It’s part of our survival instinct. As Dell’Antonia puts it, it was more important for our ancestors to remember that "there is a tiger sitting in that bush" than it was for them to remember that "the berries in that bush tasted particularly sweet.” In our busy modern life, it can be easier to focus on ways we “messed up” or fell short than on the good we do day in and day out.
It takes a certain humility to embrace “better than nothing” and “good enough” -- but it’s powerful. This holiday season, a friend bringing me a meal was good. Getting loving texts from my mom who live thousands of miles was better than nothing. Seeing my kids smiles on Christmas morning was very, very good. It was enough.