Family memories have always been important to me. But, marriage and motherhood changed me. Suddenly, I wanted holidays and birthdays and little moments to be even more special.

Unfortunately, the harder I tried to make something fun or special or memorable, the more defeated and deflated I felt when things inevitably went wrong.

My mom said to me one Christmas, “That perfect holiday you’re looking for doesn’t exist except in the movies and in your imagination.”

I was taken aback, but there was an element of truth in her words. I do have this image in my mind of what the holidays and special occasions should be, but they never quite end up that way.

A few years ago, I decided my family was going to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a fancy dinner and we were all going to dress up for it. I painstakingly planned the menu, spent most of the day in the kitchen cooking dinner and preparing desserts, and working hard to make everything perfect.

And it really was a great dinner. Everyone dressed up and kept their complaints to a minimum. Everyone ate their dinner and even came back for seconds. We put on some music and danced around for a little while and once I gave my approval, everyone made a beeline to put on their pajamas.

After the little kids were in bed, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, my husband, my oldest niece and nephew, and I sat together in the family room. Everyone was talking and laughing about silly things.

But, I was stewing about some of the things that hadn’t panned out at our party. The little boys refused to “clink” their glasses and toast each other with their sparkly ginger ale (a favorite tradition from my childhood). We forgot to play this game I’d really wanted us to play. My pies were good, but not perfect. We didn’t have deep and meaningful dinner conversation. The list in my head went on and on.

With only a few minutes to spare, I asked everyone to tell me the best thing that happened to them that year. I listened with tears in my eyes as my family shared of their successes, joys, adventures, and new beginnings.

This moment, I thought, is perfect.

I realized then that some moments can’t be planned. I must learn to let go of how I think things should be to make room for reality. If we’d played the game I’d wanted, the night may not have ended as magically as it did.

The next morning, I was back in the kitchen preparing a special New Year’s Day breakfast. I was a bit overwhelmed (read: cranky) when my husband said to me, “You don’t have to go through all this trouble. Nine of the 12 people in this house can make their own breakfast.”

I pondered it for a moment and replied, “Yes, I do have to do this.”

I am the memory maker.

My 5-year-old came clomping up the stairs. “Mmmmm,” he said, “I smell Mommy’s coffee cake!”

My eyes flooded with tears and it made all my effort worth it. I realized that my son linked special occasions to Mommy’s coffee cake. I can’t begin to describe the joy that washed over me in that moment. Perhaps I was getting things right after all.

That holiday changed and defined me as a memory maker. I decided not to worry so much about everything being perfect. I decided to cut myself some slack and take it easy on all the behind the scenes running/doing/cooking/making. I decided to spend time with my family rather than be a bystander. I decided to pause and savor the moments even when they looked entirely different from what I’d envisioned.

Are you a memory maker, too? I stand in camaraderie with you. We have a tough and tiresome job. Often our efforts go unnoticed. And no matter how hard we try, things sometimes go awry.

It’s OK, though. We don’t need elaborate plans or lots of money or all the stars to align. We don’t need much at all, really.

All we need is our loved ones gathered together at a special time (or an ordinary one) or a special place (or not) and the memories will take hold.

All we need is laughter and affection, sometimes even tears. All we need is a game or a conversation, an outing or quiet day at home.

And sometimes, all we need is coffee cake.

Originally published on the author’s blog

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Leanne Willen

Leanne Willen is a wife, mother of four, writer, and teacher. She writes about motherhood, faith, finding joy, and grief. Her blog Life Happens When encourages and challenges others (and herself) to embrace the ordinary amid the everyday chaos of life.