At my daughter’s kindergarten open house in June, she received a Flat Stanley and a colourful folder with a detailed description of “Our Summer Flat Stanley Book Project.”

During the open house, my daughter coloured and cut out a picture of a little boy to glue onto a tongue depressor. I never interfere with her art, so her Flat Stanley had shocking green hair, jagged edges and enough Elmer’s to secure a room of these mysterious paper boys. I watched in silent judgement as the mother beside me coaxed her child toward brown hair before grabbing a pair of scissors herself to create the perfect cutout.
For the assignment, we were to read the book to our child, take Flat Stanley with us on family adventures for the next two months, and obtain photographic evidence to send back to school. It sounded good in theory. As a family who throws Fancy Nancy Tea Parties and celebrates Dr. Seuss with Green Eggs and Ham, I encourage incorporating literature into life (or at least dinner).

Later that night we read the book, which was about a boy crushed flat by a bulletin board. With suspect concern for his well-being, Flat Stanley’s parents mail him to California in an envelope and hang him at an art museum to catch a pair of murderous thieves. It was weird. Not Alice In Wonderland weird, but odd. My daughter was not amused.

The next weekend we went strawberry picking and Flat Stanley remained safely tucked in the bright assignment folder. A week later, I received an email from the kindergarten director, wishing us a good summer and, in what can only be described as a sanctimonious tone, suggesting we should have read the book and taken Flat Stanley on at least one adventure by now.

Shit.

My daughter hadn’t even started kindergarten, and I was failing as a parent. As a working mother, I also felt the assignment was somehow designed to ensure I gave my child a proper summer, one full of magical experiences worthy of Flat Stanley photo-ops.

We had recently moved to this town with its insanely high property taxes and stellar schools and we were still recovering financially. There would be no photos of Stanley at the Magic Kingdom or in front of the Eiffel Tower or wherever I imagined the other families vacationed, but damn it, I would make the best Flat Stanley photo album in all of Kindergarten! I cursed myself for missing the chance to document the strawberry picking. Determined not to miss another opportunity, Flat Stanley took up permanent residence in the diaper bag.

That weekend we hauled him with us to the local craft fair. After reading about the paper-thin freak of nature, my daughter was a little wary to pose beside him. Consequently, our first Flat Stanley photo-op did not go well. The next day, I shoved him in the dirt beside our vegetable garden and asked her to take a picture with the peas. As long as she didn’t have to touch him, she smiled broadly for the camera.

There began our Summer of Stanley. He went with us on day trips to the beach, to get ice cream, to the boardwalk. He became crumpled and bent, but we kept on: there was Stanley baking cupcakes, on a dock, and in a photo booth.

In my mind, I started to refer to him as Flat Fucking Stanley. It was hard enough remembering to take pictures of my kids, let alone a paper cutout. As my hatred for the project grew, I imagined an assortment of inappropriate photo-ops: Flat Fucking Stanley in a toaster or floating in a margarita. When my two-year old bisected Stanley, I silently rejoiced before remembering we had a month to go with the assignment. I quickly grabbed the glue and my camera to document his emergency surgery.

It was during a visit to my parents in Virginia that I realized I had a problem. On a drive to Charlottesville, my husband noticed a scenic overlook and lamented that we didn’t have time to stop. “That would have made an awesome Flat Stanley photo,” I huffed. That was the moment I knew I was more concerned with Flat Stanley than whether or not my family experienced something as beautiful as the Shenandoah Valley in August.

But it wasn’t until my daughter and I were looking at the complete album that I understood the awful truth: I had become the mom who grabbed the scissors to make the perfect cutout.

She had pointed to a picture I’d taken of Stanley buried in the sand, a picture snapped while she splashed in the water with her father and sister, and asked “Was I there?” No, sweet girl, you weren’t. And I shouldn’t have been there either.

I have always been an over-achiever, so hell-bent to do well in school, in work, even as a mother, that I often forget to just enjoy myself and my family. What I learned from Flat Stanley, and what I hope to remember as my daughter continues in school, is to celebrate the imperfect jagged edges she makes herself and to curb my involvement. Rather than measuring my mothering against the success of an overly-ambitious summer assignment, I will stop forcing perfection and enjoy watching her learn.

Now, where’s the toaster? Flat Fucking Stanley and I have one more photo-op.

Originally published on BluntMoms

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Kathryn Hively

I started Just BE Parenting as a way to cope with the anxiety of balancing work, motherhood, and the impulse to write. That’s right, I’m not a parenting expert. I, my kids, and my family are perfectly flawed in MANY ways. As a parent, I’m trying to let go of perfection and just BE the best mother I can for my kids. The ‘B’ and ‘E’ in Just BE Parenting also represents the first letters of my children’s names. What works for me and my family may not work for you and yours. That’s ok! Even if we’re not the same, I hope you’ll find something relatable here.

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