I remember when I first became a mother. It had been something that I had always wanted. I wasn’t one of those people who was on the fence or wanted to wait. Motherhood was high on my list of desires. There was a plan and a clear vision for the type mom I would be and the kinds of children they would be: Perfect in every way. Duh.
I would be the perfect mix of fun and cool, firm and loving. They would reward my vision and my longing to create the family that I had so desperately wanted as a child with total obedience and adulation. They would love what I love, listen adoringly to my stories, always want to wear pants, brush their teeth without being told 80 billion times, remember to put on their seat belts when getting into the car AND to take them off and get out of the car upon arrival. This would be beautiful and easy. We would be happy.
Now of course I had no idea that I had these expectations until a few years ago. It wasn’t until everyone wasn’t living up to my utopic vision and I was mad all the time that I had to look inside and realize that they were not the problem – I was. These people were dropped down on this planet with no understanding of who their parents were or where we came from. They gave not one single shit how desperately I wanted them – they needed me to make their childhoods about them and what they needed to not become axe murderers upon arrival to adulthood. They needed me to be there for them so I had to choose to put my ideas of utopia aside and get into the mess. It was imperative for me to understand that though nothing was turning out as I anticipated it was absolutely perfect and the way it was supposed to be.
I consider myself to be very flexible. If something unexpected happens I am the woman you want on your team to figure out what happens next. Years of Theatre training, working in human services and nonprofits have given me that skill set. Growing up amidst adults with mental health diagnoses probably helped too.
But when it came to motherhood I couldn’t let go of my idea of what things “should” be. I couldn’t – and at times I still can’t. I spend so much time in my own head as a daydreamer, planner, envisioner of beautiful, inspiring, alternate realities in which people are kind to each other, “justice for all” is actually an American value, and my children enjoy broccoli and can always find their shoes.
I was afraid of the messy, ugly, realness of becoming a person – because becoming had been so painful, confusing, and lonely for me. I was trying to protect them – and myself – from that kind of pain and loneliness. I didn’t want them to feel it but I also didn’t want to watch it and experience that horrible sense of helplessness that comes from witnessing something you have almost no ability to fix.
I think we live in a world right now where a lot of parents feel this way. We remember what it felt like to be bullied, ignored, left out, or otherwise marginalized – some more than others. We want to help our kids to never feel that way. We want them to feel more heard, appreciated, and supported than we felt in the 80’s (or wherever you fit in the timeline of oblivious parents and mean children). There is certainly a line where the pain of growing up becomes abusive and we should always protect our kids AND all kids from being abused and marginalized. Always.
But I think there also has to be space for feeling terrible, being confused, making mistakes. They have the right to that and we have the responsibility to not be so caught up in having a perfect family that we allow them – encourage them in fact – to make big, bold, scary decisions that let them know what they are made of even when they fail – especially then.
They will fail. Everyone fails. We can’t be afraid of it. It’s ok not to run headlong into it too – but you have to know that no matter how hard we try it cannot be avoided entirely. Trying to be perfect is exhausting and impossible.
When I was finding myself in those moments of frustration and disappointment when everyone didn’t live up to my standards I was, in those moments, only experiencing one thing – fear of failure. I had always thought that I would be a good mom and when my kids got old enough to remind me that being a good mom was a lot more than just wanting to be I was not ready for the lesson. It knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid that this thing I had wanted so desperately my entire life – the single most important thing I would ever do – was the one thing I was actually really terrible at. Well, that and math…and dancing.
Chaos, fighting, unending messiness, public outbursts, and very loud loudness sent me into a panic – what if I actually was bad at this thing? I had lost all control.
Over time I have realized one very simple truth – we are not in control. There is no control to be had. Not of my children, my husband, my job, the weather, or whether I get hit by a bus tomorrow. It’s all an ugly, risky, scary, beautiful leap of faith. I also came to realize that all of the aforementioned things I assumed only my children did because I was, in fact, a terrible parent are things that all children do and most parents experience. In other words, I am not alone.
It’s so easy to go inside and start to believe all of the terrible things we feel are wrong with us. But if you don’t let the mean girl that lives in your head run your life you’ll learn to cut yourself some slack. Once you’ve learned to do that you’ll begin to cut your kids some slack. Then a magical thing happens – you start enjoying your life together. Things start being fun because you aren’t worried about things being perfect all the time. They just are.
A couple of hours ago I went into my daughter’s room for what I intended to be just a minute. We started talking. I sat down in a chair. She turned on the Hamilton soundtrack. We sat there and listened, sang along, talked, and said nothing for over an hour. At one point I got up to walk out of the room to check on her brothers and she said “No Mommy, don’t leave. I want you to stay.” So I stayed. It was perfect. Why? Because I just sat there with no planning, no vision, no expectation or engineering of moments. I didn’t judge, correct or lecture – except when I asked her to pick up some trash from her bedroom floor because oh my gosh the floor is not a garbage can and why do they all think it is?!? I digress…
This had been a tough year for me as a mom. They are all getting older. I now have a teen, a pre-teen, and an 8 year old who thinks he’s 35. I didn’t know how hard it would be as they got older. They don’t need me like they once did. On the one hand it’s a relief that they are more independent. On the other, it means that most of the time if we are together it’s because we have chosen to be. I know that things change over time but I want to be a person they choose to be around. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not looking to be a friend – I just want our time together to be meaningful. We sit around the table and talk about feelings, decisions, big questions about: religion, politics, justice, dreams, and obscure comic book characters. It has become so much fun to sit with them and talk about how they see the world.
They don’t eat they way I would like, they like weird things that I don’t enjoy but I pretend to because I like being with them. They fight, they are loud, they are messy, and sometimes they still have emotional outbursts that seem irrational and make me feel totally helpless and frustrated. They don’t read as much as I’d like and we constantly have to negotiate screen time. I sometimes forget that I can’t control everyone and try to pull the reigns too tight. They let me know how well this works…not at all. And yet, they are funny, kind, good, loving, and at times they are even responsible.
On this, my 14th Mother’s Day, I choose to celebrate the imperfectness of our lives together; and the mess of my own childhood, the struggles of my mother, my grandmother, and every mother who has ever cried silently in the corner because her child was hurting, tantruming, or because he just dumped an entire bag of flour out onto the kitchen floor. On this Mother’s Day I wish us all the ability to let go of perfect, have a seat in the flour, put on a smile, and thank the Lord above that we have a vacuum cleaner.
Happy Mother’s Day!