I remember my first Mother's Day. I don't remember what we did as a young family with a five-month-old baby, but I remember how I felt: Dumbfounded panic. For my entire life, Mother's Day was something we celebrated for someone else. My sister and I would give my mom handmade goodies, which slowly matured into store-bought ones, which slowly matured into adult excursions to the day spa or brunches at the local teahouse.
Now, it was my turn to have someone celebrate me. The idea felt beyond strange. How could I be celebrated for a job I was totally screwing up? It had taken me months to wrap my head around the fact that I indeed was a mom, and even five months after birth, I still needed processing time. The idea that I had a whole life in my hands terrified me. It seemed all too easy to mess it up. As a mom of "advanced maternal age" (the author of that phrase can suck it, by the way), I figured I'd be so chock-full of wisdom, doubts about my maternal skills would not cross my mind. How wrong I was. In fact, I think doubt about my ability to parent was more acute, louder even, just because of my age. I had more time to see mistakes others made, watch the success of others and compare myself to it all.
And as any mother can tell you, unfair comparison is the death of sanity.
Too often, women put forth the faces they want everyone else to see. What may have been a private hell on Earth for some mother becomes glossed over in the retelling. Think about people who claim their children slept through the night for 16 hours from birth, or the ones who swear that labor feels good, or that breastfeeding is easy, or that their toddlers love broccoli. Our gut knows this is just not the truth. It's impossible! But our minds start feeding us slivers of doubt. "If her kids sleep so well, I must be doing something wrong….if nursing is that easy, what mistakes am I making?" The internal dialog is endless, but with one common theme: We're screwing it up.
I thought I'd mastered the art of not comparing my insides to others' outsides. I was, until I gave birth. Then everything I seemed to have accomplished in my thirties got stashed in my Diaper Genie along with the poopy diapers. The holes left there by my former knowledge quickly filled in, like wet sand at the shoreline. Instead of confidence, doubt and self-loathing took their places. A friend of mine assured me it takes a lot of work to screw up a kid; it's not something an hour of television a day or the occasional missed nap is going to do. No mom is perfect, she assured me.
But all moms do one thing perfectly: We all face this doubt and this overwhelming sense of being responsible. Perfectly.
This all made me look at my mom in a totally different way. "Textbook" is not how you might describe our history. In fact, my mom is fond of saying "God put parents here to teach our children what mistakes not to make." It angered me, that saying. Because it made it sound like every parenting step my mother made was a grand mistake, everything I'm destined to do will be a huge lesson in what not to do for my kids. Is that right?
All grown up now, I can look back and see things my mom did right. I can see things she does right as a parent now. I can also look back and know she felt the exact same doubts I felt as a new mom. And she overcame them. Or at least pushed them aside so she could parent my sister and I.
Yes, there are definitely many aspects of my childhood I won't repeat. Yet there are some I definitely will.
Such as being my kid's cheerleader. Let's be honest: I could not master anything athletic. Or even physical. Too uncoordinated for dance, too scrawny for softball, too short for basketball, too just awful for tennis. I tried. And Mom schlepped me from one practice to another, until I called it quits. She never offered much of an opinion one way or the other. She let me figure out what I was doing. But what she did do was help me see what I could do very well. And that was write. She knew my sister received accolades by the bucket for her athletic prowess, while I got the "Thanks for Participating" ribbons. But what I could do was spin tales about eggs entering another world through a magical door in the refrigerator's produce drawer, or make the contents of a kitchen pantry sound nearly literary. I spent weeks one summer writing a book about my stuffed teddy bear Sunny, and even longer than that polishing the details in my detective series.
And Mom held those accomplishments up to the light for me to see. I may strike out at bat, but I could make people laugh with my comic renditions of a Mars Bar living in the fridge. I learned to see that all of us have some unique talent, and it's up to us to blow it off or feed it so it flourishes.
So this Mother's Day, years since my first one, I have gotten better with the mom doubt. I've learned that motherhood isn't about being perfect, nor is it as fragile as a blown-glass ornament hanging on the Christmas tree. And I understand what my mom says, too. We are here to teach our kids, bad and good. There are things in my life I hope my kids never need to deal with. I hope they learn from my missteps and mistakes. Don't we all want better lives for our kids than the ones we're living now?
But I don't think we as moms serve only as examples of what to avoid, of things not to do. Even in the most difficult relationships, there are rays of good that children learn from as well. My mom taught me that we all have something special. That is something I will reinforce with my own children. Mom taught me other things, too, which I will pass down in one form or another.
And the biggest one is this: No matter what, love survives. Nothing we do is stronger than the bond between a mother and a child. In all the craziness that this world can flood us with, that bond serves as a solid foundation, never wavering and always visible, even in the worst of storms. Even withstanding maternal mistakes. This mother/child bond can give you strength to accomplish amazing things that would have been impossible had you only leaned upon yourself. It makes both mothers and children stronger, better, bigger. The umbilical cord is cut at birth, but it never goes away. Mothers and children are forever tethered together, not by any physical link, but by love. Love is our umbilical cord, and it sustains us, forces us go on when we can't take another step, allows us to do impossible feats. It gives us life, just like the original cord did in the womb.
So Mom, on this Mother's Day, since you didn't want me to buy you anything, I am giving you a gift that I didn't purchase. I'm doing what you encouraged in me from the start: I am writing. Words are what I can do, and what have saved me time and time again. That's a gift you helped me see. So even though, all these years and years and years after your first Mother's Day, you still feel the doubt of your own parenting skills, know that you gave me some good armor and good tools to carve a place for myself in this world. Best of all, you gave me love, and that gives me more strength than you know. Happy Mother's Day.