The mother I dreamed of lived in a small box.
Her ever-present smile, just-right clothes and neat housewife hair was all the parent I wanted. Muddy kids would tromp into her perfectly appointed, glistening kitchen looking for something to quench their desperate feelings of hot and thirsty. This mother, the mother I dreamed was my own, would send me a knowing glance before calling to her sidekick for assistance. Magically, a life-sized pitcher of Kool-Aid would bust through the walls, appearing just in time for the kids to slurp down and gobble up all they wanted before running out to play, leaving mom appreciative of the mess she got to clean up.
But I wasn’t too delusional. Although my dream mother proved her parental perfection by being at the ready with sugary, red-dye number 5 concoctions, I knew my hopes might not be realistic. I had a back-up plan. If she wasn’t available, I would settle for Annette Funicello from the Skippy peanut butter commercials, or, in a pinch, even Mrs. Brady from the Brady Bunch. I wasn’t picky.
But I didn’t get any of these mothers. I got my mother.
Yes, my own mother was smart, hardworking and interesting. Yes, she had a heart of gold and sacrificed much for me. Yes, she loved me unconditionally (even when I was a jerk). And, yes, she was wise and taught me about integrity and strength of character.
None of these things were the problem. As a kid, these were not the parental elements that sent me swooning toward the bright light of unrealistic mothers on television. The problem was that my own mother didn’t fit into the tight social construct of my elementary culture. She didn’t fit the plastic, one-dimensional vision of commercial perfection. She didn’t wear an apron and click into the room on high heels to deliver warm, homemade cookies on a sliver tray, like June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver. In fact, my mom didn’t even know how to cook. Or make crafts for PTA fund raisers. Or gossip with other mothers. Really, she didn’t know how to do any of this stuff. Instead, she was a no-bullshit, hard-working single mom who had no time for homemaking frivolities. She was too busy focusing on the silly little parts of motherhood, like keeping me safe and healthy, and teaching me how to think and be a good person.
How thankful I am that my mom stuck with her style, rather melting into my superficial fantasy, because today I have a mother whom I love and admire for all her strengths… and oddities. I may have wanted the Kool-Aid mom, but in reality, I don’t think I would have respected her in the morning.
Perhaps I could end here and the whole story could just be funny, but then we would miss it. We would miss the whole part about how my mom expected more from herself as a mother, even though she was already performing superhuman stunts. We would miss the part about how, now that I’m a mother, I see how crazy and unrealistic my expectations are of myself, and how almost every other mother I talk to feels the same way.
I recently asked my mother how she felt about my little girl dream of having a TV mom. Did it hurt her feelings? She laughed uproariously at the idea. The indications of normalcy I had wished for, like matching hand towels that rotated with the seasons, or cute shell-shaped soaps that sat in a scalloped dish at the bathroom sink, had not even occurred to her. She was too busy feeling inadequate in other areas of her life. Yes, she had her own fantasies of the mother she should be: images she could never achieve, no matter how hard she tried. She wanted to be an angelic mother, always nurturing, accepting, soothing and empowering. Instead she was human (and I was probably a brat.)
When I became a mother myself, I put my career on hold, determined to be the cookie-making, picking-up-from-school, stay-at-home mom I had wanted as a child. Yet while I cherish every day I get with our son, this set up did not immunize me from feeling like I can’t live up to the vision of the superhuman mother/woman/professional I created as my ideal. You know, the one that doesn’t actually exist in reality, or even as a fictional character on TV.
So how do we manage to do this to ourselves? Why do we create unattainable constructs of who we should be in our role as mothers? Can’t we simply celebrate that we show up to the job of motherhood with best intentions and unimaginable love to give, and let all that we do and are be more than enough?
My mother wanted to always be nurturing, accepting, soothing and empowering. To do this, in any small way, is a beautiful gift we can give our children… but it starts by giving it to ourselves first.
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