Thursday, March 21, 2019

How Disney Made me a Better Mom

Ok, let's just be honest here..Disney might be the best place on earth, but no one is their best self there, right? Sure, it's happy and magical! But it's also hot, crowded, and overwhelming...which translates to cranky, impatient, and exhausted.

Plenty of people have asked me what the best part of our trip was and my answer was an accurate (and also probably not very helpful) "all of it". But when one friend asked what the worst part was, my answer was still, "all of it". It turns out, for all of the magic, taking your kids to Disney is really still just parenting in a different location. And as with all parenting, it's the best and worst all at once. Major magic; major meltdowns. Now, I shouldn't be (and honestly wasn't) surprised at this. After all, I'm not new at this parenting thing- I know the key to success in basically any situation with kids is lowering my expectations. (And maybe also my standards, but I think that's an entirely different blog post). I didn't expect the three small humans I brought to Disney to somehow transform into perfectly obedient princesses (and a price)...they were just my kids, good bad and ugly. So if one of them is a bit of normal situations, well guess what, she didn't all of a sudden find an endless well of manners on this trip. And it turns out a three-year-old is a three-year-old (or a threenager) no matter the setting.

So I wasn't shocked by any of the struggles, fits, or breakdowns we endured on our week of fairy-tale some ways I actually prepared myself for worse, figuring the frantic pace and intense stimulation of it all could likely turn my kids into Disney Villains.

It turned out, that the attitude and behavior that actually surprised me...was mine.

Because somehow...Disney made me a better mom.
Now, I'm not going to tell you that the instant we stepped off the plane, I was overtaken by pixie dust and transformed into Mrs. Incredible. I didn't suddenly embody the infinite grace, and joy of a magical lady-mouse. But in a whole lot of ways, I actually do feel like I was a better version of myself while we were there. It was not without its challenges (see above) but I felt like Disney enabled me to be more of the mom I want to be. I said yes. I laughed. I was present...We had fun.
It's completely unsustainable to spoil kids incessantly (with material goods or attention) and it's impossible (and probably harmful) to orient every moment of our lives around their entertainment...but dang, it was fun for a while. I know I can't be Disney-me all the time, but this week of going all-in on fun, togetherness, and delicious excess taught me some lessons about some things I want to bring out more in myself, and inject more into our day-to-day.

Disney taught be prepared
Fortune favors the bold, but Disney favors the prepared. Yes, there is magic in spontaneity, but Disney is arguably best experienced with at least some level of planning, and I was all too happy to make that happen! This effort started long before we stepped foot in the parks, but it wasn't just about booking the reservations, planning the itinerary, or packing the was about creating an experience. That's what Disney is designed to do as a company, and as a person, it's what I love to do. So this "lesson" from our trip wasn't really about changing myself into something better, it was an opportunity to lean into something I'm already passionate about...and good at. I threw myself into the task of making this trip great. I designed details around what I thought my kids would love. I searched for surprises- trinkets, outfits, attractions- that would thrill them. I thought through all the potential scenarios and needs to make sure we were covered. I hemmed and hawed, and shopped and crafted,  researched and wrapped...all so that they would have BEST TIME EVER. I can't orchestrate things to that level on the regular (also: won't) but it meant so much to me to be able to give my family this gift- this thoughtful, specific, grandiose gift of a trip, planned just for them. And sure, when my kids look back on it, I wouldn't hate it if they said things like, "Wow, my mom really thought of everything. She sure is the best. I'm so super-duper lucky to have her!" (Ok...I won't hold my breath). But I realize they have no clue what it took to put this trip together, and probably won't know until they attempt it with kids of their own. Honestly, I just hope on some level they're able to know that they were- and are- worth the effort. I stayed up late plotting our paths because I care about how tired their little legs would get; I spent the extra money to get that third coordinating Elsa stuffie on eBay because I knew how it would make their faces light up. I know I can be an excellent mom without doing any of that stuff...but it really was a dream to get to be their fairy godmother for a week. A fairy godmother with a cheat sheet of restaurant reviews, and a fanny pack full of character band-aids.

Disney taught soak up time with my kids
The amount of time I get with my kids is limited. And not just in that melodramatic, childhood is fleeting, the days are numbered kind of way (though that is so very true). I mean practically, as a work-outside-the-home mom, the time I get to spend with my kids is pretty limited. And if we're being really (like, really) honest, it's not just work that stands in the way of our togetherness- there are a lot of times I actually avoid my kids. I get tired, I get cranky, and I crave adults-only time, or me-only time. There are a million things I love about my kids, but there are also a million things I like to do without them. I find myself falling into the trap of the "wine o'clock" memes, and just wanting to check out. It's one of the strange paradoxes of motherhood- when I'm with them, I sometimes long for the freedom to do my own thing, and when I'm away from them, I miss them terribly.

But with this trip- there was nothing but together time. We didn't split up to do our own thing. There were no babysitters, no date nights, no solo outings (ok- I may have sneaked off to find a particular pressed penny machine from time to time). Everything was done as a unit. Meals, rides, lines...all side-by-side. We shared a single hotel room (Not a suite, my friends. A room.)...that is around-the-clock togetherness. (And is the reason I adjusted my sleep schedule to match their early to bed, early to rise nature- even though that's the exact opposite of my own body clock). We were together through fun and annoyances, sun up to sundown (and back to sun up).

And guess what? I loved it.

Maybe not every single waking moment (especially some of those literal waking moments)... but the opportunity to just fully immerse myself in family time was a gift. It showed me how to find rest and refreshment right where I am rather than believing I need or "deserve" an escape.  

One big difference between this trip and others we've taken in the past, is that this was just the five of us (well, and the million other park visitors). We have been beyond lucky to go on some awesome vacations over the years, but each one was with friends or family. We have never been on a trip where it was just us. I'm always a "the more the merrier" type of person, so I had no complaints about it. I honestly didn't even realize we've never done a trip on our own. I didn't set out to make this a "Bowden Five" trip, it's just how it worked out. But looking back on it, I think that's part of what made it so special. My kids didn't have to compete for my attention (except with each other...even Disney can't fix everything, Fin). But an even more unexpected bonus: I didn't have to compete for theirs. I love love love that they have so many people in their lives who adore them (and vice-versa) but it was pretty special to be their favorite all week (well, or at least a close-second to Dustin). I got to hold their hands as we skipped through the park streets. I got to snuggle them as we spun ourselves silly on the teacups . I got to share all of my Mickey-shaped treats with a bunch of eager little snack hounds (wait a minute...) When they were amazed, they looked to me in wonder. When they were nervous, they reached for me for comfort. I'm not always their everything (nor are they mine) but this week we were.

Disney taught be present
Ok- so we just established that it was all us, all the time. But you know how it's possible to be physically with someone all day, but never actually feel connected to them? I feel that so often in our daily lives...we get so busy running from one thing to another, crossing all the things off the list, doing stuff, buying stuff, cleaning stuff, that we barely even see each other even if we've technically been together the whole time.

I loved that this trip encouraged us (me) to strip away so much of that chaos. My natural inclination is to be productive...I judge myself on my ability to achieve- it's not enough to just be in motion, I want to constantly be making forward progress. So it was almost a foreign (and sometimes uncomfortable) concept to have a blank to-do list. The only thing we had to accomplish was to have fun! Um....ok?! I can do fun!

I found that without so many distractions, I was able to really be, even in the midst of a lot of really fun do-ing. And perhaps I shouldn't be as proud of this as I am, (but it's my blog I'm gonna brag if I want to) I actually put my phone away for the vast majority of this trip. I mean- it was still out nearly constantly for photos and videos because c'mon, but truly, outside of that and the Disney app (my ever-present planning companion) my phone went relatively unused. I wasn't checking notifications, scrolling through feeds, or keeping tabs on what what happening elsewhere...I was at Disney and in Disney. I wasn't just around my kids, I was with them. I got to look at their faces- just gaze at their squishy, sugar-covered faces more than I ever do at home. I got to hear them tell stories...the long, breathless, winding, "Mama?..I gotta tell you sumpin'.. did you time... um...Mama? I think...uh...Mickey had a HAT ON!" kind of stories that I typically try to hurry along. I got to go as slow as they went, be as curious as they were, feel as awestruck as they did.

Life with little ones is unending cuteness, if you can see through the unending monotony and exhaustion...Disney gave me a looking-glass to focus on the very best parts of who these little people are, and let all the rest of it blur to the sides. 

Disney taught say "Yes"
Yes is one of my favorite words...but I don't always get to say it. I want to...I try to, but I find myself saying "no" more times and in more ways than I'd like. Not right now, we don't have time, maybe later, I can't, some other time...these are practical responses based on the realities of daily life. But this trip blew all that up. It erased the typical hurdles of time, expense and other commitments, and freed me up to say yes- to nearly everything. This trip was an experiment in ABSOLUTELY. You want another bag of popcorn? Well, we already traded our life's savings for a meal plan, so YES. (In fact, go crazy...get three! Popcorn for everyone!) You want to mosey around the gift shop debating the merits of every single souvenir option? Knock yourself out, kiddo. I've got nothing more pressing to attend to. You're wondering if there is a special surprise waiting for you at the hotel (again) tonight? Why yes indeed there is, because I got a little bit carried away, you are getting a little bit spoiled, and I am a whole lotta fine with it.

Predictably, my kids loved hearing yes (especially when the question included "donuts"). But again, I think it meant even more to me. Being a parent means being responsible. It's constantly thinking ahead. It's training up children in the way they should go. It's a daunting and unrelenting task, that requires diligence and consistency. In other words being a parent is very often not fun, and not cool. But at Disney? At Disney, we are fun. At Disney, we are cool. At Disney, we say YES.

It's worth noting, though, that it wasn't all just wild permissiveness and gluttonous excess (ok...sometimes it was exactly that) For me it was more about being open, and embracing flexibility. I realized that as much as I like to think of myself as a positive person, I often say no as a default. I say no because yes feels more complicated. I say no because it feels more practical and responsible. I say no because I don't feel like putting in the effort that a yes would require. But there are so many scenarios when a yes is just as easy- if you just let yourself (or force yourself to) say it. Kids come up with the wildest plans and requests and ideas...which may not always make much sense, but that doesn't mean they're all bad. And this trip helped me see that often cost and consequences of a yes honestly isn't much...this week it meant allowing a bit more sugar, carrying them a little more often, dilly dallying a little longer. It gave me the chance to shed the shackles of "responsible mom" and try on the garments of the "fun mom". I got to shelf all of my sensible no's and experience the freedom that comes with a vocabulary of: sure, why not?, let's do it, and great idea!

So was it the best vacation ever? Or the best me ever?
I loved this trip, and I love who I was able to be on this trip. I'm not changed forever...I'm not an unrecognizable, perfected version of myself. But Disney gave me a glimpse at something really special, and I'm hoping to keep a least a little of that magic with me for "ever after".

A little note about this video:
I didn't really have a plan for capturing video while we were there...I just took a bunch of little clips on my iphone, figuring I'd want to have some things documented on video in addition to the bajillions of pictures I took. So I ended up with a whole lotta snippets, and no clue what to do with it all. Enter: our friend and super-talent Mark Batke. I asked him if he could edit my pile of who-knows-what into something resembling an actual thing, and he just waltzed in casually with his WIZARDRY. It would have taken me at least seven years to get around to attempting compiling this...and it wouldn't have come close to this level of quality. Thank you Mark, for preserving our memories and making my very amateur attempts at iphonography seem presentable.  Next time you should just come with us to experience the magic firsthand!

P.s. If you want to fall all the way down the Wonderland rabbit hole, you can check out all our Disney recaps here: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

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