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August 20, 2012
We the Parents
The Best Laid Plans
by Melissa Howell

I walked in the door from a camping trip with my three older children, carrying a bag of a sub sandwiches for dinner. (My husband had stayed home with our youngest, who became ill the day before we were to leave for the trip.)

I expected Brian’s eyes to light up with joy upon seeing what I brought home for dinner, but instead he looked somewhat annoyed. He then explained that he had done all the menu planning for the next week as well as the grocery shopping, and dinner was already partly made, with the rest soon to be underway.

We went ahead with the sandwiches, and he reluctantly agreed to put the dinner plans on hold for tomorrow.

After a somewhat rambunctious dinner, Brian was clearly bothered. With some prodding, he finally admitted to being disappointed because he had worked hard to plan a nice dinner, and instead I unknowingly picked up dinner, and then the kids proceeded to argue during dinner, with at least half of the children’s cups of milk being spilled.

“It just wasn’t what I had planned,” he muttered exasperatedly.

“Welcome to my world,” I thought.

Because if parenthood isn’t a continual lesson in things not going as planned, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps I should have reminded him about our son’s birthday party earlier in the summer.

We have three sons. They all have birthdays within 14 days of each other, at the end of May/beginning of June. Talk about bad planning (although, most of it wasn’t planned). Such is life. (Thankfully, our daughter’s birthday is in October.)

I had survived the first two birthday parties, an Angry Birds party for our son turning 9, and an Elmo-themed family gathering for our 2-year-old. I just had the 5-year-old’s party to go. I thought I was in great shape.

This 5-year-old, Lucas, loves pirates, so my husband — who can really draw, unlike me — drew an amazing pirate on poster board. We had the kids at the party color some parrots we had printed out, with which they played “pin the parrot on the pirate.” We had fun pirate décor. We had some outdoor play with our pirate ship water table. I made a pirate ship birthday cake, which was so easy but in the end looked like something of a masterpiece.

And, in what I thought was my crowning glory, I read to the pirate partygoers Lucas’ favorite book, in which some of the children in the story pretend to be pirates sailing the seas. At the end of their quest, the treasure map leads them to a treasure chest filled with love notes and cookies from their moms. So, I had asked each mom of each child to secretly send along a brief, sweet, handwritten love note to her child, which I packed into little bags labeled with the children’s names. The bags also contained chocolate chip cookies and “gold” coins.

Perfection, right? Not so fast.

After I had read the book and sent the children to the backyard to search for their own little treasures, they one by one trickled back in, grinning from ear to ear as they had a cookie or two or 10 and listened to me read the sweet notes from their moms. Some of these kids were beaming, grins spreading across their chocolaty faces from ear to ear. I was pleased.

Until a few minutes later, when my husband popped into the house, indicating toward a tear-streaked, sobbing Lucas, and saying Lucas was upset because he couldn’t find his treasure.


He couldn’t find his treasure because I had entirely forgotten to make one for him.

So, if you can imagine, we had a room full of sugared, happy children, confident in their mother’s love, while my son, the birthday boy, was in the backyard, heartbroken. Cue music: “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”

I was honest, and explained to Lucas that I was so busy planning his wonderful party, and reminded him that he was going to get to open that nice stack of birthday presents, and that I completely forgot to make his treasure bag and note. Lame, I know. But thankfully his forgiving heart accepted my apology.

Talk about things not going according to plan.

Ultimately, parents are imperfect people, raising little people who have their agency and are themselves imperfect. Things are bound to go wrong sometimes — often, even.

I often smile at new mothers who invest time and energy into creating the perfect birthing plan when they are expecting their first child. They want to dictate every nuance of the experience. They sometimes go as far as to include the perfect music to be played during this perfect experience.

It’s not that I’m against birthing plans. In fact, I think every new mom should create one. It’s a great introduction to motherhood, this first big lesson that things often don’t go according to plan. It’s a lesson that will repeat time and again in the ensuing years.

This calls to mind the 1786 Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse,” which tells of the time the poet was plowing a field and upturned a mouse’s nest. The poem is an apology to the mouse, and includes the following line, which also became the title of a John Steinbeck book:

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]”

We might plan a fantastic activity for our kids, only to find they really aren’t interested. Or we might plan a great outing or vacation, only to find it dampened by an illness. We might plan the perfect dinner, only to be greeted by a chorus of moans of disgust, or the perfect party, only to find we inadvertently have broken a child’s heart.

But of course, we keep trying. Because sometimes our plans work out (hooray!). And, because the law of opposition is real, as frustrating as it can be when things don’t go as planned, there is much joy when things go smoothly.

Ultimately, we are operating under the grandest of plans: the plan of salvation. If we live by this plan and teach it to our children, we are sure to find joy and in parenting and family life. It’s the one thing that is sure to go according to plan.

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