Imperfect mothers

A friend commented the other day that her mom was not necessarily the best mother — in the context of the details of her mother’s decline from age and illness.  My friend has had time to connect, make peace, and come to terms with her mother’s imperfect mothering skills. Coincidentally, my friend is an awesome and model mother, someone who I look to for inspiration when my own spirit flags.

Her comment gave me pause — my own mother died when I was 22, after suffering through a nine-month battle with cancer. At the time, I also had the opportunity to talk with my mom, to reconcile myself to her death, and to say my goodbyes — in essence to make my peace. What I realize now, and perhaps what has arisen from time to time in my life, is that my mother was not always as perfect as the memories we sometimes share in our family.  Families create an accepted narrative, the story of mom, as we remember her, and I think with time, we forget the harder times, the ones that made us uneasy, or the ones that made us feel less worthy, less accepted. I wrote, a few months back, a short piece, Memories of Mom, in which I extolled the virtues of my mom that I hoped to emulate in my own life (and my own flawed motherhood). Those virtues are true and real, but they are only part of the story. All of us are flawed, and it surprises me sometimes that in death, we forget the flaws of those who have passed. Perhaps we should focus on what is good, what makes a person unique, strong, and beautiful, especially after they are no longer gracing us with their presence. But maybe to see our mothers as they truly were, to appreciate what was amazing about them, we also have to validate the tears in the fabric, the stains on the carpet, and the splinters in their fingers. Then, the stains, tears, splinters and all, we might embrace the memories that make mothers, in all of their failings and flaws, all the more real, beautiful and human. Imperfect mothers, like the cookies Gorilla Girl and I were decorating when this photograph was taken, have clumped icing, wackily erratic sprinkles, even fissures and cracks. But we do admire them in the end.

I’m not trying to say that my mother was somehow not a good mother.  She was, in fact, a good mother because she did her best, because she loved us in her way, and because she tried to provide what she thought each of us, her children, needed to become fulfilled, happy adults. What else can a person do, really? My awareness of her flaws, however, is rooted in the flaws I see in my own mothering. I know I am not patient, and I know that I can go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds. I know that I have high expectations, particularly of Gorilla Girl. I know that I am distracted, inattentive, and not always as creative as I could be when it comes to inventing games, to providing creative outlets.

Today, I made another misstep in the annals of motherhood.  Monkey Man had a doctor appointment, so I was only picking up Gorilla Girl from late day.  I arrived fifteen minutes past the last call pickup time, not because I was in a super important meeting or anything, but simply because I was engrossed in a conversation with a colleague about an intense and personally charged topic, and lost track of time. I rushed across the school only to find Gorilla Girl patiently waiting with an equally forbearing after school supervisor.  I wanted to cry, but of course, I didn’t.  Gorilla Girl, trooper that she is, took in in stride and was relieved to find a banana in my bag to curb her hunger until we got home.  I have no excuses,  and I know I was at fault for not checking the time.  I know Gorilla Girl won’t be damaged for life because I picked her up late from after school, but I worried about her worry — did she wonder if I had forgotten her?  Did she worry that I wasn’t coming at all? Do all of these little inattentions, these faults, add up to the kind of hurts that children carry into adulthood (and therapy)?

Ed frequently tells me that our job is to be a good enough parent, and that if we are worried that we are not doing a great job, that somehow informs us  that maybe we’re actually managing things adequately.  Not perfectly, and not without mistakes, but good enough to keep our kids relatively happy, safe, encouraged, and loved. His theory is that our awareness about what we need to improve means that we’re thinking parents and that even with our mistakes, we’re doing a good enough job.

So why do we need to feel perfect? Where does this unachievable standard of parenting awesomeness come from? Is it about us, about our own desire to be lauded as a selfless parent? Is it that we’re more aware of the pitfalls of parenting than previous generations?  Is it that we have a greater burden to shoulder when childhood continues to extend much longer into what used to be adulthood?

My imperfect attempts to be a mom will, despite my efforts, undoubtedly continue to reveal my shortcomings.   Finding a way to forgive myself for not being perfect, well, that’s a journey I’ll be on for quite a while.

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One Response to Imperfect mothers

  1. jyourist says:

    Ah, Peggy. First of all thank you for your kind words. However, I must say that I am the one who is totally inspired by you as I watch you in the nearly impossible task of balancing work and children with such passionate engagement and authenticity.

    It is the mistakes which give us all the interesting rough edges to our personalities. We obviously all are imperfect (otherwise we would be angels). I think it is Galway Kinnel who said humans are angels with one wing, not quite lifting off the ground. However, I know if my mother were more honest about her shortcomings, our relationship would have been entirely different. It’s all about being honest about our shortcomings, which only creates stronger bonds and more fulfilling relationships.

    You are the perfect mother because you are imperfect. You are the perfect mother because you are honest and genuine with your children, your family, your friends. I certainly would find you so much less interesting and compelling as a friend if you were perfect. What fun is that? Your kids know that too, because you let them know that you know. By the way, if as parents we’re not perfect and we are honest about that with our kids, that puts a lot less pressure on them and gives them a whole lot more room to grow and flourish.

    You rock!

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