If I’m really honest with myself, I spent most of my kids’ early years feeling like I was always falling short. Call it mom guilt, call it the natural response to four kids and only so much of me to go around, but I suffered from what I would call chronic should-it-is.

What is should-it-is?

I’m so glad you asked. I’m totally making this up, but basically it’s that bossy little voice in your head telling you all the things you should be able to do. Things like:

I should be able to make a healthy, delicious dinner on time because I stay home all day.

I should be able to keep my house picked up with a toddler at my feet and an infant on my hip. 

I should volunteer to help teach Sunday School and run every school party.

I should be able to juggle a career and handle our home renovation project like a boss. 

As if that wasn’t enough fun, all these things I felt I should be doing were just the icing on the cake.

Beneath all those beliefs was this festering sense that I wasn’t enough. Because I was falling short in keeping up with all the things I should be doing and having trouble finding my footing as a young mom, I felt like I wasn’t a good enough mom, a good enough spouse and a good enough friend. I wasn’t comparing myself to some image of the perfect mother out there, I was competing with myself and my own expectations. Turns out, this was an inside job. 

Now that my kids are older and I’m (hopefully) a bit wiser, I see a little more clearly where I got stuck. Because I’ve always been a list maker, a doer and a perfectionist, staying home with my kids always left me feeling like so many things were simply undone. The house was never fully clean for more than 10 minutes, and every time I figured out a solution to some problem or issue, my kids would change the game on me.

I was measuring things that could never really be finished.

I also felt frustrated by how difficult things felt that should be easy. How hard is it to take four kids to a library and keep one of them from going off the rails or running around streaking?

Turns out the answer is: It’s hard people. It just is. 

In a strange way, going back to work probably changed my heart as much as anything.

For the first time in a decade, I felt like I could be productive at work and lower my expectations at home. In some ways this was simply out of necessity, but in a lot of ways it was a dramatic shift in perspective. Instead of focusing on what I should have done or what I didn’t do, I started to think in terms of what I did do every day. Because my time with my kids was now limited, I focused less on productive ways of measuring our time and more on the quality of our interactions.

If I could go back and tell my young mom-self anything, it would simply be to stop being so hard on yourself.

I’d ask myself what I did do today. And I’d answer with a list like this:

I fed my kids breakfast.

I watched the sunset.

I baked cookies.

I read a book.

I sat with a hurting child until he felt better.

I savored a moment.

I gave that extra hug and snuck in an extra kiss.

I was present. 

I made my child feel loved.

None of those things would be something on my to-do list, but they are the most important things. These are the things my kids will remember about me, and these are the things that make me feel like I can set my list aside and just be for a while.

If you struggle with the desire to be productive and feel like you’re always falling short, I encourage you to stop focusing on what you didn’t do each day and celebrate the small victories of what you did do.

Stop saying you should be able to do ALL.THE.THINGS. Tell the bossy voice in your head to sit down and be quiet.

We all have limitations and a finite capacity, and we have to learn to work with our limitations instead of fighting against them. Our limitations and boundaries are a blessing. They are a gift and a warning sign for when we’ve gone off the path. We need to throw out our to-do lists and write different ones. Let’s include things that add value to our lives and foster a connection with our people. The most powerful antidote to should-it-is, is acceptance of who we are and embracing the full scope of the unique people we are entrusted to raising. 

What DID you do today?