Mother's Day is the mother of all conundrums.
"Are you supposed to plan a celebration that includes the kids?" a colleague asked me. "Or plan a day that gives her a break from the kids?"
He's a dad of two little ones. He wanted to do the right thing. I'm a mom of two little ones. He thought I might know the right thing. But I am, however, terrible at predicting what other people will like. I have nightmares about working at a marketing firm:
So they're turtles. That are also ninjas. And they're mutant. And teenagers. Who in their right mind would buy those? Next!
So it's a square-shaped sponge. That wears pants. And it lives in a what? I'm sorry, I thought you said it lives in a pineapple. Ha ha ha, that's hilarious. Next!
None of the cool toys are brought to market, thanks to me, and I stand in an unemployment line muttering about the unhailed beauty of Lincoln Logs.
None of this, of course, helps my colleague plan Mother's Day.
"Both?" I tried. "Your kids are the whole reason for the day. But you sort of need to get away from them if you're actually going to enjoy yourself. Er, I mean, get a pedicure."
Here's when a third colleague joined in.
"So why is it different for Father's Day?" he asked. "If you want to spend Father's Day away from your kids, you're a terrible dad."
He's got a point. This is when I decided to call on some experts. Don and Carrie Cole are certified couples therapists with the Seattle-based Gottman Relationship Institute (gottman.com), a research center whose sole purpose is to strengthen marriages. (They're married to each other.)
Is there a right way to celebrate these holidays?
"There's not a right or wrong answer," Carrie Cole said. "The important thing is knowing what the mother or father would appreciate on their day. What they would enjoy."
But how do you know? What do you, like, ask them?
"Research shows the most successful couples are the ones that are most tuned in to each other," Don Cole said. "We also know a lot of couples go through life without taking the time to ask each other questions like, 'What do you want Mother's Day or Father's Day to mean?' They just kind of go through life being disappointed every year."
Sounds like the opposite of celebratory. Why would we do this?
"Some people are afraid of touching off an argument or bad feelings so they take the avoidance route," Don Cole said.
"We assume a belief of similarity with our partner," Carrie Cole said. "We think our partner would feel similarly to how we feel about the day."
Thankfully, there's a better way.
"We encourage couples to sit down and have 'meanings' conversations," Don Cole said. "In this case, there are three questions they should ask: How was this day acknowledged or celebrated in the family you grew up in? What about that is meaningful to you and would you like to keep, and are there things you would like to add? And what would you like to delete or not have as part of our celebration?"
And try not to hate the answers.
"There's a lot of parental guilt because we work so much, so if we ask for time to ourselves we worry, 'Is that selfish?' or 'Is my partner going to think I'm selfish?' " Don Cole said. "Successful couples accept that fear without attacking each other. 'You want to play golf? Let's see if we can work that out and have a picnic with the kids.' "
"Develop a culture of appreciation around each individual," Carrie Cole added. "Look for ways to point out all the things you like about them and appreciate and admire about them."
This seems like a lovely way to spend Mother's Day, Father's Day, Flag Day, Columbus Day and, frankly, all the days.
"It also models for your children," Carrie Cole said. "It teaches them how to be thoughtful to the people we love and teaches them the importance and meaning of that."
And it still leaves plenty of time for a pedicure. And a picnic.