Dear Erma Bombeck,
You were a writer, philosopher, and mother. A wise-cracking soul sister.
We have so much in common. Upon poring through your endearing articles, essays, and books, I can’t help but be grateful for everything you managed to teach me about life and parenting—which happened to be long before I ever really experienced either.
In the 70s and 80s, your books lined my mother’s book shelves. The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In the Pits? are forever etched into my memory. Always a reader, I voraciously gobbled them up. I laughed out loud as I digested your anecdotes, comedic timing, and writing style.
Now, all these years later, I find myself reading your works once again, with sheer delight and recognition. Your advice, funny stories, and brilliant conclusions are worth revisiting.
These are the 10 best things you taught me about parenting and life:
1. Don’t lose your sense of humor.
“When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not for quitters or complainers or those who can’t handle the drama—or the comedy. Parenting is for the humorist. Expect to get dirty. Expect to wash the dirt off your face with your own damn tears from time to time. Parenting, with all the pitfalls and craziness, is funny too. And fun!
Laugh often. It’s indeed a silly thing to find your dirty three-year-old scrubbing the family dog with a toothbrush and toothpaste on your bed (the one you just made with clean sheets) at 8 p.m. And it’s utterly ridiculous when your seven-year-old decides to give your five-year-old a very short set of bangs, the day before school pictures.
2. Don’t wish away parenthood.
“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.”
One morning, not so long ago, I woke up and realized that my kids were old. Older, anyway. And they don’t need me anymore. I’m not saying they don’t need me as much, I’m saying they don’t need me at all. For anything. They like me just fine. They enjoy our visits and small talk, but they just don’t need me. Gone in a blink are the days I spent asking questions and figuring out schedules. There is no more washing uniforms, feeding them constantly, helping them with homework, or doling out piles of advice—solicited or not.
During the throes of heavy-duty, around-the-clock parenthood, I wished it away like nobody’s business. I just wanted to move on to the next phase, but now I understand what you were talking about, Erma. It’s easy to pretend I don’t miss being needed, but I do.
3. Eat dessert.
“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
“Eat dessert” is merely a mantra for life. Savor what’s happening now. Stop waiting for the timing to be perfect to do the stuff you want to do. Eat the damn dessert for once, the one with the thick layer of chocolate frosting, and stop worrying about it so much. For heaven’s sake, seize the moment. Because all moments, big and small, are gone in a flash.
4. Follow your dreams.
“It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.”
We can be mothers, and fathers, and still pursue our dreams. Dreams do not have to precede, exclude, or follow parenthood. They can happen simultaneously. Erma did not wait for life to happen. Life happened, and she wrote about it. She wanted to follow her dream of becoming a columnist. She had the courage to show someone her dream, and it became a reality because of that courage. Her kids knew they were her priority, but they also knew that their smart-mouthed mother wanted to be a writer.
5. Housework sucks.
“My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch on fire or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one cares. Why should you?”
Hopefully, there will always be a house to clean. We need to get over the idea of perfection, and simply keep our space neat and a bit sanitized to stay healthy and happy, but that’s about it. A clean house is great, but it never stays clean for long. We must simply get over it. Housework is necessary, but it shouldn’t hold us hostage, because it really is the least important thing we ever do with our day.
6. Be suspicious.
“When a child is locked in the bathroom with water running and he says he’s doing nothing but the dog is barking, call 911.”
Always question the kids. Where are they going? Who are they with? What are they doing? Be the parent who knows what’s going on. Know that even the best kids lie. They lie and they do stupid things, and they manipulate us because they want to test boundaries without disappointing us. Decide when and where their lies are big enough to uncover and discuss. We must strive to always know what’s really going on. Why? Because it’s our job.
7. Worry is fruitless.
“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
It does absolutely nothing for us. It’s impossible not to worry, and it can consume us whole sometimes. Decide what you can control, and what you can’t, and take it from there. Some of us are worriers. If you’re like me, every night my children are away from home is the night they will end up in a ditch. I go to bed worrying and I don’t stop until I hear their feet hit the stairs. I can’t help it. The one thing I’ve done to combat these feelings is set up rules about curfews, and checking in via texting. These rules do not help me sleep, but they do help me cope.
8. Invite friends over.
“No one cares about your house.”
Looking back, I would have had friends over for dinner more often, without worrying about the state of my house. People marvel at the possessions of others, but generally speaking, no one cares. Relationships are built on connection and conversation. People don’t like you for what you have—no one cares if you have a pool, or a family room with a giant TV. Those things are wonderful, yes, but they do not help us solidify friendships. Alcohol does!
I kid, of course. But, it is indeed true that friendships blossom when we simply sit around a table together. It doesn’t matter if the table is cheap and riddled with water marks, or shiny, antique, rock maple.
9. Do the difficult thing.
“I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your hand picked friend was a creep. I loved you enough not to make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners.”
No is a difficult word. And we must say over and over again. Love your children enough to do what is difficult. Encouraging your children to take ownership of poor decisions is showing them you love them. Not excusing their behavior helps them grow. Do the difficult thing in order to raise adults who respect others and themselves.
10. Guilt comes with the territory.
“Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Ah, guilt. We remember all the things we did wrong, and all the things we handled the wrong way. How do we ever live with ourselves? Parenting books should include a long chapter about guilt. Parenthood doesn’t exist without it. And, rest assured, you will take that guilt directly to your grave because it never goes away. My head stone might possibly read, “I am really sorry for that one time I spanked you for refusing to take your medicine when you were sick,” just so my daughter really understands how guilty I still feel.
Erma, things have indeed changed. Some of what you had to say is a bit out-dated, but so much of your humor and witty observations remain relevant to the business of child-rearing today. You taught us that it’s okay to poke fun at our situations. And that humor, mixed with love and sprinkled with suspicion is the best way to parent. We learned that we can follow our dreams, and still be the good, attentive parents we want to be.
You were the original mom-blogger. Your time-weathered advice is embedded in the collective psyche of parents everywhere.
Thank you, Erma, for all of it.
Author: Kimberly Valzania
Image: University of Dayton
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy/Social Editor: Catherine Monkman