The other day, I was talking to someone who was planning to get married. She wasn't even engaged yet, but was thinking ahead, and was looking for some reading materials. She wanted to learn everything she could, so she would do it right when the time finally came.
I admire this in the same way I admire people who climb Mount Everest -- thinking, Holy cow, good for you! But are you sure we're the same species?
Because the truth is, there are some things that you can't really prepare for. The only way you can learn how to do them is to mess them up horribly, and then make several course corrections, and expect to continue doing that for the rest of your life. Or at least, there are some people who can only learn that way. Here's what I've learned from messing up horribly:
HOW I LEARNED IT: There are twenty-two feet in my family, no three the same size. One fine day, I started to calculate just how many hours of my life I had spent sorting socks, and before I was done carrying the nine into the thousands column, I realize that life was too short. Now socks go directly from the dryer into a bin next to the dryer (and then, in the case of my eight-year-old son, straight from his feet into the garbage). If people want lah-di-dah amenities like socks that are the same color or the same size, they are welcome to dig in, with my sincere wishes for good luck. Also, if you put your socks into the laundry inside-out, I will assume you like them that way, and I will not disturb them.
WHAT I LEARNED: If they care and you don't, then it's their job, not yours.
HOW I LEARNED IT: I used to color coordinate my kids, even if we were just going out to the supermarket -- because somebody might see a dirty ear and think we were not pro-life, or something. And if we could reasonably expect to be photographed -- holy cow. I would pack an entire back-up set of thematically clothing, just in case someone got crumbs on their shirtfront, and the entire balance of the universe would be thrown off. Now my only rules are: no visible rips, stains, or egregiously inappropriate slogans or monkey butts (why do so many clothes have monkey butts on them, and how do my kids keep coming into possession of these shirts? It's a mystery for the ages); and if anyone's paying money for the photographer, then you're not allowed to draw on a mustache on your lip with permanent marker OR regular marker -- no, not even if you use a natural-looking shade of mustache brown. Other than that, I let the little rug rats dress in a way that makes them feel good. The colors may clash, but the little rat faces are happier. Makes a much nicer picture, and a much nicer life.
WHAT I LEARNED: A slice of life is more nourishing than a fancy garnish.
HOW I LEARNED IT: I (the child of a small-town New England librarian and bookseller) was raised to think that watching TV is a foul and miserable practice for people who have given up on life; while my husband (the child of a globetrotting Los Angeles television producer) was raised to think that TV's are only off when they're broken and you're on the phone, ordering a new one. It sounds like the makings of some hideously lame British sitcom, but in fact all it led to was me raising kids who understood that TV was a super fun, wonderful, glorious treat that Mama would occasionally, angrily let you have, and then she would be mad at everyone for a while. A better solution? Talk often about how much and what kind of stuff the kids (and the adults) can watch; and lighten the heck up.
WHAT I LEARNED: You married your spouse for a reason. Let your kids belong to both of you.
HOW I LEARNED IT: So, you sit in your chair and begin to type, which is the signal for a needy child to scramble in behind the small of your back. Feeling guilty for yelling at them earlier, when they interrupted you while you were jotting down some moving thoughts about the value of motherhood, you intone, "Squash-y . . . squash-y; squash-y . . . squash-y" to the tune of a clock chiming, while squashing the child rhythmically. This game proves to be such a wild success that the children all assume that, from that moment forward, the only reason you ever sit in your chair is to invite them for a game of squashy-squashy. At the same time, the baby climbs in under your chair and promptly and repeatedly gets hung up on the rungs, but thrashes her head around so violently that you can't get her out without causing yet another fat lip or bloody nose. The trick is to find someone who's willing to pay you to write the kind of things you are capable of writing while you are squashing somebody; and then when a reader points out, "Mrs. Fisher, that was the stupidest thing I've ever read in my life," you can make it seem like they're anti-child.
WHAT I LEARNED: You can get lots of wonderful life experience, but never have time to write about it, or you can have peace and quiet, and nothing to say. Choose one.
HOW I LEARNED IT: You never know when the baby is going to crawl up to the computer and press the extremely attractive glowing power button.
WHAT I LEARNED: Never get too attached to your work, even if you put a lot of effort into wri