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. 

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