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In Praise of Being Lax

Once upon a time  -- back when I still believed the fairy tale of the perfect mother  -- I changed my baby's clothes the minute they were soiled. No driblet of spitup, no dot of strained peach was too insignificant to escape my critical eye. I'd remove not just the offending top, but the T-shirt underneath it, and the pants and the socks, too. If I wasn't going to let my babe look like a slob, I certainly wasn't about to let him look mismatched.

Nowadays, three more children later, I'm satisfied if everyone is simply wearing clothes. (And if it's warm enough, I'm not even too picky about that.) In fact, I've eased up in many ways. I no longer launder baby things separately in a special detergent. I give baths just once or twice a week. I don't fear germs if others hold my newborn. I permit snacks in the living room.

My laissez-faire mothering doesn't come naturally. In my former (childless) life I was a perfectionist. I made lists, planned ahead, always met deadlines  -- and certainly never wore blouses smeared with peanut butter (as happened only yesterday). When a stressed-out coworker confessed she'd taken to wiping down her daughter with baby wipes in lieu of a bath, I was horrified. My own children, I imagined, would be scrub-cheeked cherubs who climbed eagerly out of the bubbles into pristine terry robes.

But experience, as they say, is the best teacher.

Quickly I discovered that babies usually do not get dirty enough to qualify for the ordeal of a daily bath. That feedings go faster if you don't warm up the formula first. That it's much easier to put the food right there on the high-chair tray and let a 10-month-old feed herself  -- even if half of her lunch winds up on the floor  -- than it is to painstakingly spoon each mouthful to her from a bowl. That a child who wants cottage cheese for dinner for two months straight isn't going to develop scurvy. That running around the house naked never hurt anyone.

Heresy? Maybe to some. I prefer to call it survivalism. My laxness is borne of equal parts laziness, fatigue, mental preservation, and a comfort level that increases the longer I spend on the job. As the mother of four, I'm more confident about what can slide without terrible consequences and about which battles are really worth fighting.

After all, there's no "right" way to do most parental things. There is, however, almost always a more expedient one. Now I think, "Hmmm. Wet wipes instead of a bath? I'll have to try that sometime." Does it make a difference that everything in my children's lunch boxes is homemade? Does it matter if my child isn't toilet trained by age 3 because I don't enforce carefully timed marches to the potty?

Not to me. One day 4-year-old Henry whined for TV, even though he'd just seen 101 Dalmatians (yet again) an hour earlier. "But I haven't watched anything in a hundred and one years," he implored. I looked at the rain outside. I thought about my own television-saturated childhood and knew it hadn't done me any damage as far as I could tell. We were both sick of blocks and paints. Did it really matter if he vegged out for another hour or so watching Spot videos?

Not all of these concessions have come so easily. I happen to love dressing my children, even if I don't do it as many times a day as I once did. Thanks to doting grandmothers and godmothers, their wardrobes are far snazzier than my own. Luckily, Henry has al-ways been a willing human hanger for whatever outfit I lay out. Not so his younger sister Eleanor. She was barely able to walk when she developed a zealot's allegiance to a certain Winnie-the-Pooh shirt. Soon she was dressing and undressing a dozen times a day in self-selected favorites. Try as I might to steer her toward the adorable jumpers and coordinated outfits in her closet, she'd inevitably style herself in a dizzying clash of fabrics that resembled the screen saver on my computer. I'd cajole. She'd persevere. I'd insist. She'd cry.

Finally, when I was out of town for four days, my husband let Eleanor's fashion sense run free. When they picked me up at the airport, my daughter was wearing a yellow floral dress over her brother's lime-green turtleneck, with candy-cane-striped leggings, bright purple Keds, and, to top it all off, an inside-out Easter bonnet. But she was happy, and I was so happy to see her that for once it didn't matter to me what strangers might think. Now I almost always let her assemble her own outfits. Sometimes her look comes off with the funky pizzazz of a lilliputian Betsey Johnson. Sometimes it just looks bad. But do you know what? Mornings go a lot more smoothly.

Of course, there are some things one can never be lax about. The kids must be buckled or strapped in for every car trip. We finish all the medicine in the bottle. We keep household poisons locked away, outlets safety-plugged, pot handles turned in. These are nonnegotiables. I may maintain minimum standards of cleanliness, but I stick to maximum standards of safety.

Nor does being laid-back mean I don't set limits. No hitting, biting, or use of "poo-poo-head" is allowed.

As much as I'm the poster girl for mellow mothering, there are a few areas where I'd like to try harder. Lately, for example, I've attempted to wrangle the whole family to sit down to dinner at the same time  -- a little blessing, a little conversation, a little family bonding. One whiff of my son's breath as I kissed him goodnight recently made nightly toothbrushing a top priority, too. And I swear I'm going to stop letting the kids use the sofa cushions for fort-building.

Where a parent draws the line is an individual thing. What matters is that we each find our own comfort level, critics be damned. If you like spoonfeeding, spoon on. If bathtime represents more pleasure than hassle, enjoy your superclean baby. Or if peace to you means visible spitup stains and Spot videos, then go ahead and indulge. It's your call.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the upcoming Parenting Guide to Your Toddler.