How Finding a Family Motto Changed One Mom's Entire Attitude

Some mornings, everyone wakes up in the same mood and everyone finishes their breakfast and finds their shoes and we bound out of the house together on a mutually exciting new adventure without forgetting the water bottles.

Actually, that never happens.

Baby wakes up early, happy, hungry. Older child wakes up with a bounce or a somnolent drag or something even more fragile, and has been known to cry over her cereal. And the parents, we have still more complicated moods, though we wake up, very obediently, at the sound of our children.

Since we had kids, the number of adored coffee-making devices in our house has grown. We even ripped out a sink to make a counter space dedicated to coffee. Call it a station or a shrine, it makes breakfast easier. It is a rare day that I sit down for the coffee or breakfast, first because our kitchen isn't eat-in, but also because the morning involves serving children and making lunches and restoring dishes to shelves, checking weather, hunting shoes, all that. Sometimes we parents discuss the idea that they'll be old enough to do breakfast themselves, someday. But it's pretty hard to imagine. Especially when the one capable of serving her sister sleeps well past 7 and the baby gets up well before. It seems likely the toddler will be the one serving breakfast someday, maybe when she's 4, or 3, if we train her right . . . she already loves to hand her sister toys, saying "here-ya-go."

One of the particular difficulties of family life is the mood mess — the different emotional registers four individuals inhabit, and the feeling that as a mom, you're somehow in charge of managing the moods. I don't mean making everyone happy, but there are basic level functions that count as "ease" — call it harmony — that you need to get a family through the day or out the door.

For example, it can be very hard to get your kid to eat breakfast without solving the fact that they are wailing. It can be draining and unpleasant to try to temper, regularly, the strong emotions of children. And the weekends can be especially prone to disorganized states, in which there you all are, after five days of routine, and each person may have a different wish for Saturday. One of you may be tired, one may have really adventurous plans for the day, one may want to take care of the stuff that couldn't be done in the week. One, or both, of the adults may simply not have the energy for your kids. It's tough!

Then there's the crisis of what to do: the things you as parents think should be fun — canoeing! rock climbing! art fairs! — can end in disaster if your kids aren't game. And it's not just the kids who throw wrenches in so-called plans. There's many a weekend in which I yearn for my old patterns — slower days, time for doing things at your own pace, without interruption, without having to coax anyone along. It can be frustrating to see all that time in the weekend and see it get eaten up by, well, mood management. The need to do something, the need for a plan, and the fact that no one does things the same way. Our kids are still so young, they don't actually have or make plans, but that's part of the problem — their one power is resistance, and it can rear up at any time.

There was a period a year ago, when dealing with postpartum fatigue of the new baby and adjusting to the reality of having an infant and a preschooler, I decided I needed a motto. Something to boost myself in tense situations, something to keep me going. Something to limit swearing, to reset mental habits. It's like for once, the coffee wasn't enough. I needed talk-show-level support. And I needed something quick, always at hand, since my tired brain couldn't think through many steps and it wasn't rational. In fact, my brain seemed stuck in an emotionally reactive pattern, in which one child's cry or an accidental spill could trigger unexpectedly strong feelings in myself, as if I was shell-shocked.

I don't know why I grasped for a motto. Perhaps I was influenced by the stream of reporting on Carol Dweck's research — that your attitude and openness can help you more than skills or set intelligence. I had also been reading about families that organized themselves in the corporate method, with meetings and critiques, and did still more reading about how families make stories. A study found that giving your children stories to tell about their family can develop their identity and improve family bonds. Apparently developing a strong family narrative and sharing your history helps kids face challenges. It's a new-world way of imparting family values without, say, practicing religion or adopting the parenting styles you inherited. I must have read still more articles, because what I took away in Bruce Feiler's essay was not the "your grandfather worked three jobs for 30 years" type narrative, but the booster motto, which I found clever. Instead of directing/scolding your child, you can include yourselves in the narrative à la: Steilens take pride in completing their homework. Steilens love to go on hikes. We Steilens do not whine! Your child is not being made to do something; they are joining the, ahem, age-old or spur-of-the-moment family motto. But it can also serve as behavior modification for the overanxious parent, in the same way that I find lullabies self-soothing as well as child-soothing.

I settled on "Be Loving." It was a way of reminding myself what to do, and how to be, without necessarily having to feel loving feelings all the time. It was how a parent should act, even if I didn't feel like being a parent in that moment. It was something I was capable of. I have never had a motto. I have never felt the need to resort to one. But now that I have one, I find it indispensable.

What would you make your family motto? Many involve sanity/life preservation. Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Staying alive
  • Keep it simple
  • Chin up
  • Are you bleeding from the head?
  • Do what feels right
  • Keep cool
  • Be kind to one another
  • Don't sweat the small stuff
  • Thank you for teaching me patience, my love
  • Survival is key
  • This will all be funny someday
  • Just be here
  • Trying to stay afloat