I am not the mother I thought I’d be. ‘That’ mother is glossy, smiley and perky. She knows how to make healthy meals, fast. She’s well adjusted and well groomed — the envy of other moms. Me, though, I’m a royal shit show.
I thought that the more experienced I became at this mothering thing, the better I’d actually be at it. The magazines, stock photos, and advertisements made it look so easy and super fun!
The moms in those pics always look so well-hydrated and level-headed and so profoundly happy with their lives. Plus, historically I’d always been an over achiever. So I KNEW that something that was essentially like babysitting or being a camp counselor (which I was pretty amazing at) would be as simple as putting on yesterday’s outfit.
I did cut myself some slack in the early years. I told myself that transitioning into any new life role is hard. But, looking back, those were actually my golden days of parenting.
Back then, I did research on what programming and books were okay for my kids to watch and read. I charted their growth every month on the kitchen doorframe, their little bodies pressed tight against the wall. I planned crafting activities for weekends and even invited friends over to join us (maybe they’d admire how effortless I made it all seem). I made homemade baby food from fresh organic fruit and vegetables in advance, packaged and frozen in individual serving sizes.
Now, my son reads books with the word ‘butt’ in the title. Butt. In the title. I remember to mark my kids’ height on the growth chart maybe once a year, annoyed, after they lament that I haven’t done it in forever. If they feel like making a craft, I suggest they make a paper airplane with today’s junk mail and check YouTube for instructions so I can lie down for ‘just five minutes.’
And, the meals… Last week, I taught my kids how to boil hot dogs with the reverence of someone harvesting organic carrots from her own backyard garden.
However, what I have gotten better at is letting myself off the hook. I have spent so many years beating myself up over all the things I haven’t done ‘right.’ And, still, every so often I have fleeting feelings of (almost) guilt for not creating that picturesque dinner table scene every night: soft lighting, my children happily setting out the flatware as we all laughingly sing along to The Beatles, a main dish and two sides steaming on the trivets.
It is so fleeting, that feeling of almost guilt. And then, it’s gone, and I try to remember if my youthful imaginings also included a monkey butler who kept the calendar, did the laundry, cleaned the house, drove the kids to activities, did the shopping, helped with homework, bought the birthday presents, planned the parties, made the meals, booked appointments, chauffeured kids to those appointments, soothed emotional, social and physical wounds.
If I had that monkey butler, it would be easier to remember who I was before I was only ‘mom.’ I was well coiffed (and I didn’t use words like ‘coiffed’) and physically fit but I didn’t understand what strength really was. I was looking for a stock photo to accompany this article and I used the search term ‘strong mom.’ I was offered rows of women working out or dressed in superhero costumes but all I wanted was a picture of a happy, weary, and disheveled mom who had made it through another day of giving it her all.
The vestiges of the before-time me are still there but they’ve changed and grown in surprising ways, as though left in a petri dish. I don’t have fancy three-course meals in clean clothes with other stock photo families; I have crappy dinner parties and serve frozen pizza. I don’t do the PTA and school bake sales because I’ve accepted that I’m an introvert with social anxiety.
I don’t plan weekends full of adventure and crafts for after we’ve all happily done our chores and lip-synced with the broom; I let my kids watch TV for too long so I can sleep in, I nag and coerce them to put away last week’s laundry so I can pick up this week’s off the floor, and I tell them I’d prefer if they didn’t paint because it makes too much of a mess.
Related: Why I Love My Crappy Dinner Parties
My kids are amazing little people who astound me every day when they show sparks of their future selves with the way they think, how they see the world, and how much they teach me about myself. They reach every single little bit of feeling I have in a way no one else can: they make me laugh, cry, and scream with rage and frustration. They exhaust me, challenge me, stimulate and invigorate me.
They are utterly perfect and so very flawed. I could not have imagined up these people in my most colorful dreams.
I am not the mother I thought I’d be. I am not the smiling, well-rested mother of magazines. But, it turns out that my kids get a kick out of my imperfections, my foibles, and my lapses in proper adult-like behavior.
I’m also not molding my kids the way I thought a mother was supposed to, shaping them carefully into perfect adults with my mad parenting skills. Instead, most days, they teach me more than I teach them.
All I need to do is try to stay out of their way as they learn who they are, and I get to watch this incredible thing happening, unbrushed hair, last night’s makeup, frozen pizzas and all.