Photo by Savit Keawtavee

My Aunt Mary taught me to make the most delicious chocolate zucchini cake I have ever tasted. I could eat it for every meal…every day…for weeks. My self-control is in jeopardy when the cake and I are in the same room, so I only make it for special occasions when I am sure someone else will help me to devour it. A birthday celebration for my nephew provided the perfect opportunity to whip together this treasured treat, so I spent the morning of the party stealing licks of the batter before gently setting the cake into the oven.

Packing the diaper bag and tidying the kitchen kept me occupied while my three preschoolers played in the backyard. They would occasionally come into the kitchen for a drink of water or an opportunity to smear mud on the floor, but overall the morning sailed by smoothly.

Twenty-five minutes into the baking process, I sensed the potent smell of burning zucchini. “That can not be my cake.” I thought. “It still has 35 minutes to go, and I am sure I set the temperature to 400.” In spite of my hope that some other zucchini in our neighborhood had caught fire, the smell indeed came from my cake, and the oven knob clearly read “Broil.”

Over the next few weeks, I discovered that although my one-year-old could not turn the oven on, he could turn the temperature up–to broil. Everything got broiled if my little guy was not strapped tightly into his high chair. I could rest easy if fries were in the oven, but other than that, I became our family oven guard.

Yes, my son finally learned not to touch the oven, but more important, I learned that if you are a mother, you must be ready for the unexpected. If you want to be a sane mother, you must learn to enjoy the unexpected (in a twisted sort of way). This article is my way to ensure that my zucchini cake did not die in vain. If I can help even one mother become better at “rolling with the punches” of child-rearing, it will be worth the cost of our unintended burnt offering.

Here it is—suggestion number one: Do not feel badly if you cannot control every aspect of your child’s life. You can childproof your home and create a schedule for your children, but when the kinds of incidents happen that will make great stories later, it is not your fault. If your children lose their brand new shoes in the park sand box, get pistachio nut shells stuck around their molars, pull down their pants in the middle of the hardware store, or unwrap every cough drop in the house, it will be all right. Hopefully these things do not happen more than once, but moving forward is the best thing to do.

On to suggestion two: Be aware that the elements will combine. A spilled cup of juice or a VCR full of pennies is relatively predictable, but when more than one child becomes involved in the process, the sanity-security alert ought to be raised from orange to red. For example, one day my husband brought home a strawberry shake and gave it to our two-year-old, Grace, to drink at the kitchen table (nothing out of the ordinary there). The “elements” combined, however, when Grace neglected the shake for a quick potty-run, and our one-year-old, Ethan, climbed up to the table and dumped the shake all over his clean pajamas.

Not long after that, I strapped our children into their car seats while Grace held a small bottle of water and Ethan clenched an Oreo and an empty cup (he had to have something in each hand). Five minutes into the drive, I discovered that Grace had poured her water into Ethan’s cup, which he used to saturate his Oreo and turn it into a paste that would cover his whole body. Never in a million years would I have anticipated that, but as I walked into our doctor appointment with a cookie-covered child, I couldn’t help but laugh—which leads me to suggestion number three: Laugh now.

We have heard that all through our growing-up years, right? The advice to “laugh now” usually came after something like when the cute boy in your fifth grade class just saw a picture of you naked in the bathtub (as an eight-year-old). I never much felt like laughing then, but I practically force myself to laugh now. Some mothers take a picture to capture the crazy moments. Other moms call their mothers so they have someone to laugh with them. However you decide to do it, remember that although you may be exhausted that day and completely unable to mentally or physically handle one more accident, in the scheme of things it really does not matter. I have to say that to myself over and over: IT REALLY DOES NOT MATTER.

Now for my final suggestion: Remember that the wild events of toddler-hood are relatively easy to handle. Yes, they often require unfathomable amounts of physical endurance and patience, but someday you may wish these were your biggest problems. I love visiting my mother-in-law because she helps me to see this stage of my life more clearly. Her home still has teenagers, and life has certainly presented their family with challenges beyond my capacity. Whenever one of my children does something that I would ordinarily perceive as “stressful,” my mother-in-law simply smiles and takes it in stride.

Our children are going to present us with zany, frustrating situations, but the only thing that makes these events hard to handle is how we interpret them. My mother always told me that fear and excitement do the same things, physically, to your body. It is how your mind perceives that feeling that determines how you respond. That same lesson applies to motherhood. The shock we receive when our children “surprise” us can easily be turned into a funny adventure instead of a source of anxiety. When I wake up in the morning, I think, “What adventures will I have today?” Some days are definitely better than others, but I have generally learned to breathe and laugh throughout the chaos, and I value the taste of a perfectly-baked zucchini cake more than I ever imagined I would.

QUESTIONS: Do you need to laugh more? Do you need to step back and realize that the problems you face each day as a mother are simply part of being a family?

CHALLENGE: Find a way to help yourself get through the chaotic moments, write down the idea, and look at it during the moments you want to yell, “Help!!”

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