Sunday, May 14, 2017

Great Expectations

“As hard as you think it’s going to be, you wind up wishing it was that easy.” Emma Horton, on her death bed, to her husband, Flap, who has just confidently asserted that he will carry on raising their children after she is gone. (Terms of Endearment)

I’m not a fan of Mother’s Day.

I love being a mother, and I love my children. I am extraordinarily grateful that I was able to participate in the creation of their lives. Bearing and raising children is a gift from the universe that I honor and respect.

That being said, I am not a fan of Mother’s Day.

As a teenager, I remember on one occasion telling my mother that I couldn’t wait until I had children of my own, because I was sure I’d do a better job than she was doing. The naivete is astounding, isn’t it?

Growing up, I always thought I’d be a mother, and I always believed I’d be good at it. I didn’t feel that I had many gifts and talents, but for some reason, I always believed in my ability to parent when the time came.

I had my first child shortly before turning 30. I had been a pediatric nurse for several years by this time, and I was comfortable around infants and children. And yet, when my own baby was less than a week old, I tearfully begged my mother not to leave me alone with her because I WASN’T READY TO BE A MOTHER.

The reality of actually being someone’s mother was far more terrifying than I had anticipated, and my confidence fled.

The 27 years since that day have taught me that I was right to be afraid. The job has challenged me in ways I never imagined possible.

If someone compliments my skills as a nurse, I proudly accept their praise without pause. If someone tells me I’m a good wife, I agree and smile.

If someone tells me I am a good mother, I hem and haw and stammer as I attempt to brush off the compliment.

Why, I wonder?

I think the answer lies in expectations. (Which, according to Anne Lamott, are “resentments under construction.”)

Way back in my youth, when I imagined myself as a mom, I pictured a passel of mini-me’s running around at my feet, pausing to gaze at me in adoration, listening raptly as I read to them, or instructed them, or scolded them. I pictured myself patiently explaining the reasons for my discipline, which would always be received with gratitude. I imagined them coming home to me after school and telling me of their day while eating the cookies I had baked with love and drinking the milk I had freshly drawn from the cow in our backyard.

Really! Ok, not really. I never wanted a cow in my backyard.

But the rest? Yes, I was that naïve.

What I neglected to factor in was the personalities of the littles I was imagining in my future.

Our kids come “with their bags packed” (thanks, Ann Cannon). Their personalities are hard-wired from conception. They are not blank slates waiting for us to imprint our wishes and desires on them. Nor are they miniature replicas of us, their parents, authors of their creation.

Each of my kids is a unique being, with his or her own individual predisposing traits and characteristics. I should have anticipated that, right? But I was completely unprepared for how very different they would be. From me, from their dad, and from each other.

Kids come with their own agendas, but not their own instruction manuals. Dammit.

A wise therapist once told me, as I lamented the trials and travails of parenting, that I should bring my best self to the task, and if that wasn’t good enough for my kids, it became their problem.

This is a great philosophy, in theory. In practice, not so much.

Because even when I know I have brought my best self (and on occasion, I have), and my children are still not happy, I can’t be happy. I can’t let it be their problem alone.

Because I am their mother, and their happiness is my responsibility.

Or so I’ve been told.  By my culture, my church, my peers. And my children.

If my children aren’t happy, or successful, I am to blame. It’s on me.

And no matter how many times I tell myself that they are the authors of their own destinies, that they alone are responsible for their own happiness, I don’t believe it.

The conditioning runs deep.

So I dislike Mother’s Day because it serves to highlight the expectations I had of motherhood that have turned to disappointment.

It brings into harsh relief the times I feel I have failed my children.

And no matter how much Hallmark wants me to believe otherwise, the voice inside my head won’t let me accept any credit for how great my kids actually are. Only the blame for their failures.

As a youth, I imagined motherhood would come easily to me. As a new mom, holding my firstborn and tearfully begging my own mother not to leave me alone, I knew the job would be difficult. As a veteran mother, I now wish it was only as hard as I had then imagined it would be.

Incidentally, my own mother did not leave me alone that day. She may have left me physically, but emotionally, mentally, and in all other ways, she has been beside me every step of the way, encouraging me and cheering me on. If I have had any success at all, it has been because my mother held me up, and showed me the way.

Maybe, someday, my own children will say the same of me. 

Friday, May 5, 2017


My dad received a scary medical diagnosis this week. My wonderful, loving father, who is 82.

When my mom called to tell me, I could hardly comprehend her words. My dad has been my hero all my life, and I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I’ve been the luckiest of daughters to have him for a father.

The phone call took place in the evening, the night before I was to work an early shift at the hospital. I have to rise at 4:00 AM to be at the hospital by 5, which for a former night owl is painful. I went to bed soon after the call, and as I attempted to settle myself for the night, thoughts of my dad’s demise kept creeping in and disturbing my peace. I finally drifted off into dreamland, but slept fitfully, waking at 2:45 AM, planning his funeral.

I work on a unit which cares for post-surgical patients, many of whom share my father’s diagnosis. As luck would have it (or as I like to call it, serendipity), one of our newest, and brightest, surgeons walked onto the unit just as I was telling a coworker of my fears for my dad’s imminent departure from mortality.

I asked the surgeon for a moment of his time, and told him of my father’s diagnosis. His words brought immediate relief, and hope.

He explained to me the various ways the diagnosis could be interpreted, depending on the particulars of the biopsy results, and the treatment options available. He described the medical interventions that could be considered should further testing prove the situation to be more dire than we know at present, and provided me with information that calmed my fears, and eased my mind.

After our conversation, I called my mother to tell her what I had learned. She shared my relief to hear that this diagnosis was not a death sentence for my father.

At the conclusion of our previous conversation, when she had first shared the bad news, she told me that the family would be fasting together this Sunday. She said that she knew I no longer participated in religious practices like fasting, but she didn’t want me to feel left out. She seemed tentative and unsure, as if she feared that I would mock a revered religious rite.

I told her that while she was correct that I no longer believed in fasting as a manipulative attempt to force God’s hand and influence the outcome, I do believe in fasting as a unifying practice that connects families and friends in solidarity and love. I just don’t think going without food for a prescribed number of hours will get God’s attention and ensure that my dad’s life will be spared. (I didn’t use these exact words, as I am sensitive to my mother’s sacred beliefs and do not intend to mock them.)

To be fair, my mother doesn’t believe her fasting and prayers will guarantee a desired outcome, but she will admit, if I were to press the issue, that she is hoping to impress upon God her devotion and obedience in exchange for a blessing of health, thereby obtaining for her husband a miraculous cure.

My issue with fasting, with the intent of procuring a blessing of health and/or happiness, is that I can’t believe in a Supreme Being who would reward only those who denied themselves food and drink and prostrated themselves in humble supplication. After all, the scriptures tell us that rain falls upon the just and the unjust. As do good health and long lives.

And we all know good souls who were pure in heart who did not survive a scary medical diagnosis. My mother-in-law is a case in point. No one better ever walked the earth. Her life was taken by cancer, in spite of fervent fasting and urgent pleas begging to spare her life. And in the end, no one blamed God for not answering those particular prayers. Rather, he was thanked and given credit for having provided life lessons.

Isn’t that the way it goes? Prayers are answered in the affirmative and our loved ones live, and we thank God. Prayers are not answered the way we would like them to be, and our loved ones die, and we thank God. God never loses.

You know what I do believe in? Science. And medicine. Doctors who spend years learning about the human body and its processes, and then spend years using that learning to save and improve lives.

I know my parents also believe in science and medicine, or they would have spurned modern medicine and gone straight to prayer and fasting. There are those amongst the religious who do so, generally at their peril.

But you know what really irks me? In the end, no matter which direction this diagnosis goes, God will be the one who gets all the credit. God will be thanked for sparing my father’s life, if he does survive this. God will be praised for stepping up and granting my family’s petition that my dad be healed. And if he isn’t healed, and this is the end for him? God will also be praised. Like I said, God never loses.

Know who should get the credit? The doctors who diagnose him, and operate on him, and provide radiation treatment, and prescribe life-saving medication. The nurses who provide gentle and compassionate care as he recuperates. The ancillary services who are there to draw labs and clean rooms and take x-rays. All of those people who work so diligently to share with my dad their skills and knowledge so that he might go on to live many more years with the family who loves him.

The family who will credit God with my father’s survival, should he outlive this scary diagnosis.

I know my mother will find comfort through prayer and fasting with her family. I found comfort in the words of a knowledgeable and skilled surgeon. I guess I am putting my faith in the arms of flesh, since those arms have held many lives in their hands, and come out victorious. I’m hoping for a similar outcome for my dad.

As much as I believe in love, and family, and connection, I also believe in the power of science, and the dedication of those willing to sacrifice years in the pursuit of life-saving knowledge and skills.

And if the outcome isn’t what I hope for? I will thank the medical community for their efforts, and I will be grateful for the years I did have with my beloved dad.

And I will thank my beloved dad for being my dad.