- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Pizza is supposed to be one of the perfect foods, like bananas and peanut butter — and some would argue, chocolate. It fills and satisfies, offering starch, dairy, protein and that yummy flavor enhancer, pools of grease.

When ordered with the right combination of toppings, pizza has virtually all the food groups.

More importantly, pizza is delivered to my door. This is what makes it a perfect food. Following this logic, brussels sprouts would be a perfect food if delivered to my door.

What I love is the part where I answer the door, and hot food — which I did not prepare — awaits me on the other side.

Tonight’s dinner was pizza — again. This time it wasn’t delivered to my door but instead, was served at a family event for one of my children’s sports teams. Team parties are a staple in dinner planning for today’s parents, and I’m happy to kick in my $10 contribution if it comes with pepperoni, extra cheese and carrot sticks on the side.

So, while we didn’t actually sit down tonight and eat together as a family, we also didn’t have to move the four loads of laundry presently spilled across the kitchen table.

Too much pizza and laundry in the kitchen can mean only one thing: It’s mid-November.

We’re knee deep into first semester. The homework load is serious. I’ve made 17 trips to the drugstore for poster board (a product we buy one sheet at a time, for reasons we can’t explain). Round one of “team sports” is nearly over, and a new season looms ahead. Not to mention, we’re nearly out of brown paper lunch bags.

We haven’t slept past 6:30 a.m. since last August.

We’re due for a meltdown.

Then again, we’re not alone. A Google search of the words “families and too busy” nets 779,000 responses. Another 1 million sites pop up for “teens and stress.”

Articles explore the pressures families face when juggling work, school, extracurricular activities, sports, volunteerism, church groups, exercise and more.

Presumably, some of these articles offer advice about how to avoid the pitfalls of overextending our busy schedules.

I attempted to read one, but when I reached the suggestion “spend an evening at home playing board games,” I realized it was written by someone currently living on another planet — the planet “I have no children who play sports or signed up for French club.”

In our house, we have a surefire way to control stress and regain perspective on what’s important. It’s called “The Exhaustion-induced Meltdown.” Here’s an example of how it works:

It’s Sunday morning. We’re slated to go to church in the evening because my daughter plays the flute in the choir. I’m reading the paper in the kitchen (ignoring the accumulating laundry) when she wanders in and says, “I don’t think I should play tonight. I don’t know the songs.”

“You have plenty of time to practice,” I reassure her, “and besides, you have to play. It’s a commitment.”

I figure that’s the end of it. She raised the flag to see if I’d shoot, and I sent up the “commitment” flare.

Later, while folding laundry, I call to hustle her downstairs. She’s due at church by 4 p.m. to practice with the choir, and my husband is waiting in the car to drive her there. She appears in the kitchen, frazzled and flustered, her long brown locks dripping down her sweater.

“I can’t go,” she wails. “My hair is wet, I’m late and I don’t know the music.”

This time I’m out of patience. “You made a commitment. That means you show up, no matter what. Your hair will dry and you have an hour to go over the music with the choir. Now go to church and play the stinking flute.”

With these words, she leaves for church to praise God through her gift of musical talent.

Only, she doesn’t.

Thirty minutes later, she reappears in the kitchen, crying and doubling over in pain. She has a stomachache. My husband tried to convince her she’d be fine, but the melodrama overwhelmed him so he brought her back home — a wise move.

Here I was, hammering home the message “be responsible,” and it turns out that’s just what my daughter was trying to do.

Only on this particular Sunday, she was trying to take responsibility for her health, her disposition, not to mention her sanity. Living as she does at the speed of high school, she needed a day to regroup. She just didn’t know how to say so.

We pile in the van and head to church. When we get there, I sit next to my teenager and put my arm around her shoulders, gently rubbing the muscles in her neck as we listen to the sermon.

In a few minutes, I can feel her relax. I give her a smile that says, “I’m sorry,” and the tension dissolves completely.

On the ride home, I let her know I understand what it feels like to need a break. “You’re obligated to take care of yourself, but next time, just say so. You don’t have to ask permission or give yourself a stomachache,” I tell her.

When we get home from church, we sit down to a family dinner, probably the only one we’ll eat together for several days.

Incredibly enough, it’s not even pizza.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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