Dear Mom, I Finally Understand How You Felt

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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One of my most vivid childhood memories was waiting in the car, for my mom. Whether we were heading to school or running errands or going to Grandma’s house, I can picture my sister and me, in the car, waiting. Annoyed.

Why did it always take her forever to leave the house? What on earth could she be doing in there? We were ready. Why wasn’t she?

Good Lord, do I know now. And Mom, I am sorry. I know that we probably left a trail of clothes, shoes, papers, books, toys, cups, and plates everywhere, giving zero fucks if we came home to a disaster of a house. But you cared. Because you worked so damn hard all day long to keep the house neat and organized.

I know now that the last thing you needed for your own mental health was to take us crabby kids on errands, probably to buy us stuff (not you), and then return home to a mess. I know now that you were probably tidying up and throwing the last of the dirty dishes in the dishwasher or starting another quick load of laundry so that you could be multi-tasking, even when you weren’t home.

I also know that maybe you were taking a couple sips of that coffee you perked four hours earlier and never drank. Or grabbing a bite of breakfast, since it was 11 a.m. and you probably hadn’t eaten, but we had.

But most of all, I think that maybe some days when you let us sit in the car for five minutes, you were taking a hot minute for yourself. I get it, because I do it now too. After asking my kids (your sweet cherub grandchildren) to put their effing shoes on and get in the flipping car through gritted teeth because I started asking them 42 minutes ago and they instead proceeded to pelt each other (and me) with Nerf gun bullets and line up 19 stuffed animals on the kitchen floor, I had an epiphany.

They finally saw smoke come out of my ears, got their shit together, and listened. I watched them pile into the van, mumble under their breath something about “why was Mommy yelling?” and close the door. And I took a breath. I didn’t move. I didn’t get my shoes or coat on or grab my keys for several minutes. I stood there, in my quiet kitchen and breathed.

After finding a bit of inner peace and asking Jesus to take the wheel because Good Lord it was only 11 a.m. and we still had nine hours to go, I slowly poured a to-go coffee. I leisurely added a little creamer. I perused the cabinet for a breakfast bar (since I, too, hadn’t eaten anything yet that day). And when I was ready, I made my way to the car.

I wonder sometimes if that’s what you used to do when I was a child. I picture you running around the house, making the beds, checking to see if the dog had food and water, and ensuring your coupons were in your purse. But I also like to think that maybe you took a minute for yourself now and then. And maybe that minute was while your sweet (but sometimes bratty) daughters were waiting in the car.

I hope you did, anyway.

I get it now, Mom. I get why you were annoyed as you dragged us back to school shopping and we grumbled about going store to store. I know that you were trying to make sure we had all that we needed, but also capitalizing on sales because there was only so much money to buy new backpacks and jeans and a cute top for the first day.

I know now what it’s like to feel invisible. To feel unappreciated. To fold everyone else’s clothes and scrub everyone else’s shit off of the toilet and make appointments for everyone else and take care of everyone else and after a long day of doing all of the things, having your family tell you the dinner you made sucks.

How you did you manage to not chuck a frying pan out the window some days?

I am sorry I didn’t know. I do now. I know how hard you worked. I know you went without. I know that just about every waking moment of every day was about us, despite there never being enough hours in the day. And although we didn’t appreciate it, you kept on doing all of it. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

Even though we griped about the stew you made, you cooked dinner again the next night. Even though we whined about cleaning our rooms, you forgave our attitudes and patiently mothered us through the teenage years. And even though we didn’t often say thank you, you kissed us goodnight and said “I love you.”

I have a 9-year-old now who has started dropping the “Ugh, Mom. I’m old enough to handle it” line on me. At nine. Boy, relax. You have no idea what you can “handle.” And I can see 12-year-old me, angry that you wouldn’t drop me off at the mall or the movies with my friends for hours on end. I mean, I was 12. I could have “handled” it, Mom. But you knew. You knew that I was a child and that the world could be scary. So you were mean and said no, and man was I pissed at you.

I now know why. Because now I get to be the terrible mother who says no in order to keep my kids safe. I know now what it feels like to make decisions to protect my kids and watch them stomp off in irritation and disappointment. It sucks. And I’m sorry I did that to you.

Someday they’ll know.

I’m sorry, Mom, that I didn’t come back in, out of the car, and help pick up the house. I’m sorry I didn’t say thank you more. But I’ll say it now. Thanks for being the mom you were, and still are. Thanks for sometimes being mean to keep me safe. And thanks for taking me to JC Penney for the cute top I begged for, even though I wanted to go to The Gap, because JC Penney was having a sale and you could use the extra money to buy that Lisa Frank trapper keeper I wanted too.

I get it now.

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