A long time ago when the kids were still little and I was driving up to Michigan with a co-worker for a business trip, we started to have a conversation about kids and motherhood. She was about 20 years my senior and had a couple grown kids by that time and she said that they had a fine relationship with them, but I sensed regret in her voice. At one point I said, half joking and half serious, “Well, I’m just trying to make sure that I never ruin my kids lives.”
She laughed out loud with a big grin and replied, “Honey, you already have!”
I chuckled out of courtesy and turned my face to the window, but inside I thought to myself that woman was crazy.
10 years later, all I can say about that crazy woman is that she is now brilliant. I haven’t seen her in a very long time, in fact I don’t even remember her name, but I am so glad that she said that to me. If I knew where to find her I would hug her and kneel in from of her as if she was the Dalai Lama. Surely, she has awesome wisdom. And for me, in the last 10 years I think I have some awesome motherhood wisdom, too. But it came to me from an unexpected place.
Back when I had that conversation with her, I do think I had pretty particular priorities as a mother. I was a little stiff and a little controlled. And I thought that if I did all of those things in my priority list that I would expect my sons to grow up as successes as if it were a recipe in a cookbook. I was working for my sons to provide a loving home, organic food, a good school, birthday parties, trendy clothes, bikes, toys, vacations, playtime, parks, kisses and hugs, bedtime stories, you know, all the good stuff that we are told are good for our kids. Clearly, if you provide all this stuff you will never ruin their lives.
But here comes the messy stuff about life and how it changes your plans about never ruining your kids: you lose your job. You divorce their dad. You have a stroke. And then all of that good stuff you’ve been doing for years gets eaten alive by the big, bad adult problems.
And then, ohmylord, here comes the mom guilt. That lovely feeling that rears it ugly head when you imagine you’ve done something wrong, whether you did or not. When I was working I used to say, “Tomorrow I have to go to work and I’m going to feel guilty as shit.” I have literally said that.
It was during all those bad times after the great campfire stories over s’mores in the backyard telling them that life would never change that I said to myself, time to pack your suitcases because I have definitely ruined my kids’ lives. I don’t think they even like me anymore.
I think the strive for perfection started in the very moment I touched the skin of my first child. Holding that tiny, swaddled newborn, so fresh and so innocent, I vowed that I would do everything for my son and try to be the best mother ever. I felt invincible as a mother at that moment. I thought that the relationship with us would be invincible, too.
But during this 15 year old relationship with motherhood it hasn’t necessarily helped me to figure out my feelings as a mother myself yet and I’ve found myself in moments that have nothing to do with being invincible. I felt extremely vulnerable, overwhelmed, over-stressed, lonely. And it took much later after the conversation of my co-worker to say to myself, oh, so this is the crap my own mother dealt with, huh?
Admittedly, when I was a new parent, I was a little cocky that I knew I could be a better mother than my own. It makes me cringe, but it’s the truth. Another truth is that the relationship with my mother hasn’t always been about unicorns and rainbows. However, as the years continued, I started to understand my mother more and more. Since my kids were born I was expecting for me to understand how to be a better mother to my own kids, instead I’m learning more and more about my own mother. All of those years as a child I would look at my mother and think she was so beautiful.
And I don’t say that because it’s my mother, really, she was beautiful. She was petite, with large, blue eyes, thick, lush hair, a wide smile, an infectious laugh, and she knew everyone in town. Even as a child I knew that I would never be as beautiful and social as my mother.
So sometimes, admittedly, it was unbearable to have a beautiful, social butterfly as a mother.
The year when my father died in 1987, it definitely tested both of our patience. In one of my low points as a daughter, I remember arguing in the living room under the lights of the Christmas tree that my mother and I had decorated and in a fit of rage I yelled, “I HATE this place!” Meaning, I hated the house and everything that it stood for and it looked like she was trying to move on. My father’s ghost was swirling in every room in the house because he had died in that house, I was the one to find him in that house, and I was so angry that I could hardly breathe.
How dare she tries to fake normalcy.
How dare she tries to fill the vacancy as Father by getting a full-time job.
How dare she would grieve the lost of her husband. How dare I would think that she is a human being. How dare she had hopes and dreams.
Didn’t she know my pain was worse?? Didn’t she know that not only that I was the one to find my dad dead and that I lost the expectation of everything that I thought would happen?? That I expected him to screen potential boyfriends on the porch, see me graduate from high school, help me with college, fix my car, teach me to change a tire, meet my future husband, hold his future grandchildren.
As an adult I think now, Oh, I must have been unbearable as a daughter.
It takes a long time into adulthood or until you become a mother or a father yourself, that we realize our parents were just magnificently flawed human beings playing the same game we are playing now: Life.
Today I got this in the mail:
A Mother’s Day card from my own mother. She’s been doing this for several years. Every year it makes me cry. And she always writes that she thinks I’m such a good mother. It took me to be a mother myself to know that of course she knew that my pain was worse. She felt it. She wept for it. Her heart broke for it. When I see my children in pain about school, or a friend that hurt their feelings, or they didn’t get an award or they are struggling with homework, or when they are feeling their mom is ruining their lives, I feel it in my gut. I feel it in every single molecule of the pain that they are feeling. So trust me, I know now that she was always feeling my pain all those years.
So today I ask myself, How could I have ever thought that I could’ve done it any better than herself?
Where do I think I got the ability to feel invincible?
Where do I think I’ve got the moxie to think I can do it better?
Why do I even think I can do anything at all?
I got it from her.
I am her.
And every generation will be better and better and better and better.