I feel like a decent mother. After all, my daughter eats her spinach, draws excellent giraffes, makes up songs that rhyme, and announces randomly at dinner that, sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet. We mothers pat ourselves on the back for being that rock in our children’s changing world. The straight arrow in their quiver. We, after all, are good mothers. Smart mothers. We know best.
A few years ago, at my daughter’s pre-school, I noticed that a little girl was munching on pizza rolls and trying desperately to pry apart a fruit rollup apart with her teeth. My eyes darted to my own child’s lunch, which luckily contained cottage cheese and fruit. I grinned. My child might thumb her nose up at olives, but at least she’s not eating that. Forget the fact that pizza-roll kid will end up at a Virginia private school on a soccer scholarship, or become a world famous scientist, or perhaps save a species of fish from extinction. My kid won’t fall asleep with orange Cheeto dust in her hair, and that’s really what matters.
Then there was the time the preschool teacher announced that my daughter was able to spell her own name before all the other children. I made a quirky little face like “What? We just sit around drinking sodas and drawing on the walls. I just have no idea where she gets it from.” In reality, I was patting myself on the back for putting up a word tree in her bedroom and for reading her so many stories despite the fact I was so tired I wouldn’t have cared if Curious George got hit by a truck and died.
But when your kids are little, your barometer for success or failure as a parent reflects back at you. You control their diet, their wardrobe, and their bedtime routine. You can set firm rules and make sure they show respect for others. You drag them to church and make them wash their hands and eat their carrots. And when you feel like a failure, you call up your really good friends– those who occasionally put their kids to bed without baths or pull out dirty clothes from the laundry pile on picture day – for moral support. One such friend called me in horror of what she had done, like the Mother Gestapo would hunt her down and take away her Mother-of-the-Year pin. Crippled by the stomach flu and a husband out of town on business, she locked all the doors, set out a platter of lunch meat, crackers, cheese, and cookies, and just let her children watch Dora the Explorer all day while she lay in bed clutching her abdomen. Don’t sweat it, I told her on the phone. That will probably make their “best childhood memory” list.
But then someday, something changes. It’s not about you anymore. It actually never was. I recently got a note home from Kindergarten saying my daughter wasn’t following the rules, and she could stand to listen more, and that perhaps she needed some practice on the daily sound tests. My heart sank. As my husband was brushing his teeth that night, I said surely this teacher didn’t really see our daughter’s true talents. That she’s creative and curious and brilliant. I wished there was something I could do to show her teacher just how fabulous she is.
“No one will ever see her like you do,” he said. “To you, she’s perfect. You’re her mother.”
I suppose that’s true. Mothers only see the good things. The bright, shiny mornings. The giggles and thank-you’s and made-up stories about dancing monkeys. We snuggle and love and pray and give, assuming that all the work we put into our children will pay off. Like a bonus that’s supposed to arrive at the end of the year. But we forget that these are independent little people, separate and apart from us. They are not vessels we just fill up and push out the door; they are unique creations from God. They must learn to fail, and must face struggles of their own – some we might not always be able to fix. That’s hard for us mothers. The thought of our daughter getting a broken heart, or our son not making the team, is too difficult to bear. We can’t always make it all better by holding them close and reading them stories. Homemade macaroni-and-cheese with crunchy breadcrumb topping only goes so far.
So I suppose we must simply love. When times get tough, or they don’t fit in, we just love some more. After all, we’ve already got our bonus. We get to be the loom upon which their lives are woven, and watch them grow into beautiful people. They will overcome, and change, and beam with pride when discovering their true selves. We’ll stand in the background, us mothers, and realize that it’s not about us after all.