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What Matters Most

The winter my daughter, Audrey, turned 3, she came down with the chicken pox. I explained to her the importance of not scratching the scabs, but she couldn't help it. A few weeks later, I saw a tiny patch of skin, just to the right of where her beautiful, wavy, long hair parted, where the hair was not growing back. This tiny bald spot was about the size of a pencil eraser, but I cried when I saw it. (Not right away, but later on the phone to a friend, who had her own grief to share: Her own perfect daughter, also age 3, had chipped one of her front teeth.)

More than two decades later  -- with my daughter grown and gone from home, and her two younger brothers off in the world also  -- I think back on the tears of that long-ago afternoon and shake my head. So many things that seemed so important at the time didn't much matter. And there's the corollary: I see clearly now one thing that did matter, but that I didn't pay sufficient attention to back in those days. And that was my own well-being.

For anyone who's spent 25 years raising children, as I did, the list of energy-consuming minor tragedies and perceived heartbreaks is likely to be long. I can remember many of them, and I know how many more of them I must have forgotten. There was the stretch of months I spent agonizing over what to do about a mediocre elementary school teacher Willy had. She wasn't a terrible teacher, and she wasn't abusive. Just uninspiring. Still, I made multiple visits to the school, spent hours on the phone with friends and a couple of Willy's former teachers, checked out a private school I could not afford, and, in the end, succeeded in having my son moved to another classroom where, indeed, he thrived-though he later conceded he might have preferred staying in the original class, with his best friend.

It's a syndrome common to most parents: the impulse to worry excessively over the small or medium-size details of our children's lives and lose sight of what those of us a little farther along the path recognize as "the big picture."

Back when I was immersed in the day-in, day-out challenge of raising young children, I kept lists everywhere  -- of books I wanted to read with them, places to go, goals I wanted to pursue, problems that needed fixing and even some that hadn't yet arisen but that I already anticipated.

A close friend  -- one of eight children and the mother of two herself  -- has a response to the little daily frustrations of family life that I've always admired, because it struck me from the first time I heard her say it as so totally unlike anything I'd ever come out with.

When something doesn't go the way she or her kids might have wanted, Leslie says, "Oh, well." That's it.

Of course, there are times when "Oh, well" is not a sufficient response, times when we need to make a big deal about a situation. But I know much better now how few things are worth much more than that.

So if I had it to do over again, I would do less, not more. Times that I raced us around providing stimulating activities and opportunities for enrichment, I would stay home. What they'd get in return, that I didn't always give them, is a happier and more relaxed mother.

Here's the truth: A woman who drives a hundred miles in a snowstorm to purchase a hard-to-find toy for her son's birthday, the one who gets up at dawn to bake brownies for her daughter's class rather than sending store-bought, is also a woman who's not finding the time to read or plant bulbs in the garden or catch up with her sister on the phone. She lets her own birthday pass unmarked even as she's taking care of every little thing to ensure a magical birthday for one of her kids. But when everyone's gone home, she might collapse in bed with a headache. Or lose her temper with her children, as I certainly did when my own resources were most depleted.

The pity, when I look back on the years of being a mother to my young children, is that I see, among the many happy and wonderful images, an overtired and sometimes burned-out woman, often too stressed by fretting over details to enjoy the great gift of simply being their mother. I don't want to suggest that I'm besieged by guilt and regret. In the balance, I believe we had more good times than bad or anxious ones. But from where I sit, as one whose job is mostly over, I see how many more good times we might have had (or how many of the bad ones we could have avoided). All these years from the day I first held a baby of my own in my arms, I would say that what a child needs most is knowing she is safe and loved, in a calm and peaceful home, with a parent who is happy and well  -- more than she needs a visit to see the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit at the museum or a made-from-scratch birthday cake in the shape of a stegosaurus.

Joyce Maynard's latest book is Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City.