Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Good Mother



As a child I often longed for sick days. As the eldest of three children and with two working parents, sick days were the only days that I had control of the television, with no one else around. I would change the channel from the cartoons that most children favored to the channels that played shows directed to stay at home mothers. I wasn't interested in the game shows, where overly tan hosts  smiled with blindingly white teeth or the soap operas which all seemed to loop the same plot themes of love triangles and cheating husbands. No, it was the commercials which held my interest.

I would read during the television shows, biding my time for the next commercial to come on. My heart would race as the ads finally flashed across our tv, streaming into my living room where I was sprawled on the couch under the safety of my bedroom quilt next to the tv tray lined with crackers and 7-up that my mom placed there before leaving for work with instructions to call if I needed anything. I knew that I didn't need the soda or the crackers to heal; I needed the calm of the houses in the commercials.

I would watch these commercials so raptly that my book would often fall out of my hands. The warm light of the television showed houses that were perfectly tidy, cozy and safe. The mothers on those commercials, dressed tidily in pressed pants, twin set sweaters and a single string of pearls, gazed lovingly at their children, smiling brightly as they mopped their already shiny floors with some product that promised to make their home the envy of the other mothers. Everyone in these commercials were so HAPPY. I filed away the details for my future.

I would be happy. My children would be happy.

...

My oldest child was born in 2001. I was twenty-two years old, both an adult and child somehow sharing a body. I prepared for his birth not only by readying the nursery for a baby, but also by buying myself sweater seats, dusting off the pearls that my grandmother had given me and ensuring that the curtains in the kitchen let in enough sunlight to make it always sufficiently sunny. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

When my son was born, warm and finally in my arms, I was happy. My heart was bursting with more love than I ever had known that I was capable of. The c-section hadn't gone well and the nurses had forgotten to give me pain medication and though I felt battered and beaten in my body, my soul was singing for what felt like the first time in my life. It was all coming true. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy.



Two weeks later, as I dozed with my newborn baby in my arms, my husband called to tell me that planes had been driven in the World Trade Center. I turned on the tiny television in our bedroom just in time to see the first tower fall. Our son was a terrible sleeper and I hadn't slept more than an hour at a time in weeks. I wondered if I were hallucinating. I watched the news all of that day and into the night before the familiar image of the american flag came on the television along with the national anthem that always played before the station went black for the night. The notes pierced my heart and I woke my son to nurse him even though he wasn't hungry. 

The pregnancy had been hard and for the last few weeks of my pregnancy all that I had thought of was giving birth and having my body back to myself, without the pain and discomfort. Now, all that I could think of was opening up the healing incision in my belly and placing my son back in for safekeeping.

 I slept upright in a chair with my son in my arms for weeks. Grandparents and great-grandparents came to visit, warning me that I was spoiling him and I would regret it when he would never let me put him down. I had no desire to put him down. If the world was going to end, it would end with him comfortable in his mother's arms. I had brought a child into an unsure world and I was swallowed up in the grief and mourning of the world that I had imagined for him. 

Weeks later, the news stopped streaming into our home twenty-four hours per day(this was before the minute-to-minute news cycle that we have today) and regular programming commenced. I got up out of my chair and lay my son in his bassinet for his first nap out of my arms. I turned on Martha Stewart and devoured her housekeeping advice as though it would save us all from the terrorism that haunted our dreams. The modern day commercials no longer held much appeal for me, but Martha had a way of making me feel that everything would be okay. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

I was so grateful for my perfect son but fear ate at my belly every hour of the day. The sound of planes overhead, which was quite frequent due to our proximity to the airport, made my heart race and would send me running into my son's room to grab him into my arms. I learned to drown out the sound of fear with my vacuum, pulling back the vacuum carefully at half of the speed that I pushed it forward per Martha's direction, dragging the old carpet into tidy lines. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

Most of my friends did not yet have children, so I tried to meet other mothers in the community. Not a one of them wore a twin-set and pearls. They did all share the same haircut, shoulder-length and perfectly tidy with no flyways and all drove oversized SUVs or shiny minivans even though they all had only one child each. My small, used sedan seemed old and tired in the same way that I did sitting around a table with these women. Sleep was always the topic at hand. The women took turns talking about how little sleep they had gotten in the past week, month, year. I nodded along, also exhausted. When my turn came I admitted that my son had taken a two hour nap the day before and I had napped with him. All of the women congratulated me on the extra sleep, then exchanged silent looks that made me realize that I had misstepped. Sleep deprivation was the contest at hand and I had lost. I left more exhausted than when I came. I wasn't sad when the call inviting me to the next coffee date never came. 

...

I was happy. Mostly. My son was happy. Two more children came along, beautiful perfect daughters. 
Being a mother was a greater joy than I'd ever imagined. And, yet...I wasn't perfectly-coifed-and-smiling-while-I-mopped-the-kitchen-floor-in-my-bright-kitchen happy. The fact that I couldn't give my children this perfect, sunshiny life ate at me in the most unspeakable way. 

For years I've filled the hole where the dreams of this life used to live with food and alcohol and lots of other unhealthy things. I've made my own self-flagellation a religion of sorts. I've smiled on the outside while I screamed on the inside. I've been the classroom mom, the PTA mom, the mom that my children's friends adopted as their own when their own moms were absent. I've won that sleep deprivation contest three hundred times over in my desire to be everything that I could for my kids. Yet, still that hole inside me remains. 

...

As a nurse, I have the great pleasure of working with pregnant and parenting moms. I've realized that each of these moms has their own dream of what motherhood may look like for them. I haven't yet found a mom who has realized her own dream of that perfection. 

Social media has drawn a razor-edge along motherhood, challenging each of us to try unsuccessfully to rise to the level of perfection of the Facebook galleries of shiny children, tidy homes and skinny thighs. We compare our real, imperfect lives with a single moment of curated perfection in the lives of another.

Motherhood, in many ways, has become much harder in the sixteen years since I first became a Mommy. I've never quite learned that I cannot reach the impossible bar that was created in my mind all of those years ago as an awkward and sad child, dreaming of a better day. In fact, in many ways I've raised the bar higher for myself. 

We joke about this, without really getting to the meat of the problem. Moms joke with one another about their "mommy sippy cups" filled with wine, to take the edge off of the pain of our own imperfections. Moms used to beg Calgon to take them away at the end of a long day, but moms today are blotting the pain out all together with the subtle clink of a glass after their children are off in bed. We scroll mindlessly through Facebook daily, even though it makes us feel worse instead of better. We curate Instagram perfect galleries of a life that isn't quite real. 

Are we happy yet? Are our children happy yet?

I'm so tired. So. Damn. Tired. I'm mostly happy, too. Still, not a single day in my own motherhood have I met the impossible bar that I've set for myself. So, I'm also ashamed and sad and chubby from my self-medicating with alcohol and food and lonely and in constant physical pain and so many other not-happy adjectives. 

So, today I'm committing to stopping self-medicating the pain away and facing it head- on. I'm committing to being honest with myself about my short-comings but also giving myself a damn pat on the back for all of the many things that I am doing well. Most importantly, I'm lowering the fucking bar that was never, ever going to be met by me or any other mom. I'm going to try a hell of a lot harder to love myself with the ferocity that I love my children. I'm going to love the little girl inside of me that was dreaming about all of the wrong things on the search for peace.  

I hope that you'll join me. 


8 comments:

  1. By making that commitment, you are on your way to pure happiness! I quote my then 2 year old a lot, but when she said 'you can only do what you can do' as a tiny tot it seemed so profound to me.
    Honestly that's so true. And it's enough. Whether it's a lot, or little; perfect or a mess, it is okay!!

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  2. I love your raw honesty in this post and as a mother of three, who is far from perfect, I applaud you on your efforts. Do what you can but don’t rubbish your efforts.

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  3. This is the absolute truth, "Social media has drawn a razor-edge along motherhood, challenging each of us to try unsuccessfully to rise to the level of perfection of the Facebook galleries of shiny children, tidy homes and skinny thighs. We compare our real, imperfect lives with a single moment of curated perfection in the lives of another." We need to STOP! Thank for your honesty and commitment to just be YOU. ♥

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  4. My son was a junior in high school on 9/11/01 and even though I had not just given birth to him, I was about to release him into the world. It was tough seeing him try to make sense of this thing that happened - the worst event he had seen to date. I wanted to board him up in his room and keep him safe forever. But he left home, and now I have two grandsons who will undoubtedly lose their innocence when world events continue to unfold in their lives. Motherhood and grand motherhood are not for wimps!

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  5. I always tell myself that people who have pristine, picture-perfect social media accounts as mothers or fathers can really only keep up that fascade at the cost of being a great parent.

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