Halloween for underachievers

BRETT PAESEL is the author of "Mommies Who Drink; Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom."

HALLOWEEN presents a particular kind of challenge for the underachieving mom. While I adore spending time with my children -- gabbing about their day, tossing a ball around or examining dead worms -- I can’t get it together to do the flashy stuff that requires real effort. I’m the mom who brings paper napkins for the school potluck. I recently had to buy all of my allotted raffle tickets for a school fundraiser because I forgot to sell them to my friends. Last week, during show-and-tell, my 3-year-old son elaborately opened his fists to reveal that he had brought “nothing” to show because I forgot that Wednesday is the day kids drag in their loot.

At Halloween, my shortcomings become even clearer to teachers, other parents and playmates of my children. I bought a couple of pumpkins this year, but I don’t plan to carve them. Two years ago, a pumpkin I eviscerated in a moment of uncharacteristic holiday zeal molded and caved in two hours later. It sat in my sink for a week turning black. I have learned from past experience not to do any theme decorating in our apartment, unless I can live with torn orange streamers mocking me in the middle of July. I use a pilfered hotel “Do Not Disturb” sign to discourage trick-or-treaters, since I’m awkward with any children but my own.

But all these issues are minor compared to the drama that inevitably revolves around costumes for my two sons. I started the conversation early this year, and I have been trying to manipulate them into wanting to dress as something that requires very little money or effort. Certainly I could spring for those cheap masks and plastic pullover things at Kmart, but lazy as I am, I can’t bring myself to dress my children as advertisements for TV shows they aren’t allowed to watch.

I suggested that my 6-year-old wear a shirt and a tie and go as a politician, but he wants to be a Komodo dragon. I told my 3-year-old that I could paint bruises on his arms and legs and he could go as a kid who falls down a lot. But he wants to be a red cat because a friend of ours works at the REDCAT Theater downtown, and he’s been obsessed with the image ever since he heard of it. I’m figuring that we’ll do red sweats and a few whiskers drawn on with a lip liner. The Komodo dragon is going to require some re-imagining of last year’s T. rex costume.


Things used to be a whole lot easier for underachieving moms. In addition to being one, I’m the daughter of one -- and she seemed to have more like-minded company in the ‘60s. One year, she and my dad couldn’t be bothered to take us trick-or-treating. They gave my brother and me some crepe paper and newspapers to take upstairs and told us to make a different costume for each time we came back down into the living room. My parents then kicked back to discuss the day over martinis; every time we emerged in a new paper creation, they threw candy at us.

The next day my mother told a neighbor about our evening. She was impressed and passed on her own timesaving tip: “I threw a black wig on Grace and told her to go as her evil twin.”

I long for those days when a mom could throw a sheet over a kid to make him a ghost without worrying that she’s falling short of everyone’s expectations. Or simply her own.

The year of the paper get-ups is the only Halloween that my brother and I really remember -- and not because we were traumatized by our parents’ lack of industry or our treat bags containing only M&Ms; and a few walnuts. We remember it because our family was celebrating together on our own peculiar planet, and even then we all shared a passion for the unsought moment that required very little effort.