I did not take naturally to motherhood. It’s not that I didn’t want it or didn’t adore my children. I did. The idea that I made people was instantly mind-blowing. The trouble was that, early on, I learned how ill-prepared I was for mothering. Mothering, the verb. Before I had them, I thought “mother” was a thing you were. Then I realized it was an action verb and I spent the better part of a decade running after it, out of breath. Mothering kicked my ass.
It happened from the start. They tell you that kids show you their personalities right away. But how can you know that except in retrospect? I had no baby against which to measure my first-born, my daughter. By the time she came along the only previous baby in my life was a freshman in college. I’d convinced myself I’d done much of the mothering of my brother, ten years my junior, but all I remembered was cooing and smiling and long afternoons bonding over episodes of HeMan. He was, by all accounts, an easy baby, docile and sweet.
My daughter was not like that.
Her screaming fits were epic. They burst upon the scene without decoder ring or clue, turning her a scary shade of purple, little beads of sweat forming on her forehead. She would not suffer inconveniences gladly. She hated her stroller, for instance, arching her back and screeching as if it had a secret bed of nails on it. She was a Viking of a baby too, gnawing on chicken wings at six months, walking at eight, a milestone which no believes. (But it’s true). Everything about her was unruly, from her full head of hair that stood straight up on her head in the back for the first full year of her life to her loud disapproval of stores.
I’m ashamed to admit that I remember a whole lot less about her brother’s infancy. It started 18 months after hers. By this point, I was not on a runaway stagecoach… I was being dragged behind it, wondering when the stallions were going to run off a cliff. Two kids in diapers, two kids flinging food and crayoning the walls… my joke is that there are three years of my life I don’t remember. Except it’s not a joke. My accomplishments were counted in how many days straight I’d been able to take a shower. (I was not terribly accomplished).
I did so many things wrong as a young mother. I set up an expectation of equality between them – presents for both no matter what, that kind of thing – that still haunts me. I got them toys that were supposed to teach them several languages before they were two years old and then fretted when it didn’t happen. I handmade all their food and tried to stuff them full of vitamins surreptitiously, with gummies and chewables. I promised myself they would only see the good me, the one that doesn’t curse or worry about her weight.
It was crushing. Motherhood was crushing me.
I failed early and often. I sent my daughter to an elite kindergarten where they taught her about the Roman Empire. Although it was my intention to keep her in this educational nirvana through grade school, I decided to switch her to public school when I learned class size dwindled to about 4 after the third grade. Then I obsessed… had I scarred her, fated her to become a friendless loser by having her switch schools? I signed them both up for soccer but didn’t practice with them nearly enough. All I wanted to do was nap. Somewhere around when my daughter was 8, my son 7, I just lost steam on reading them each a bedtime story. Going to sleep had become a two-hour ordeal, baths and vigils at bedtimes and, after almost a decade of it, I just wanted to fall asleep. They protested. I felt the weight of my many failures.
Then, I ruined their lives completely by divorcing their father when my daughter was 9, my son 8.
It was, in many ways, a time full of surrender. The pretty life I’d constructed for public viewing had fallen, brick by brick, all around me. The mom I’d promised myself I’d be had made me so very, very tired, too tired to go on that way. I had made up an idea of how things were supposed to be, but I had failed to live up to it. Mother’s Day often reminded me of it, and I cried at the imperfection of the day almost every year. There was no brunch fancy enough, no bouquet of flowers gorgeous enough to make things right.
Once it was just the three of us, stripped of artifice and without any real plan, I began to mother from instinct. To do the best I could. To be real with my kids. To tell them when I was tired and I just couldn’t. To tell them what I really wanted – a writing career and to hold on to the house I had grown to love so deeply, in part because they were etched into every crevice of it. To fail in front of them. To tell them about rejections from agents. To try again, in front of them. To see them for the people they were.
I don’t know if it was just the fact that they were older or that I was different, but things began to change. Rather than a source of tension, I started to find myself considering them kind of cool. I took them on our first solo vacation, a three-week road trip to Virginia. It was awesome. We walked the dogs and sat in my son’s room watching him play video games, the inadvertent bonding they used to tell me about in the parenting books I’d long since stopped reading.
I began to notice that we could spend long hours just being together. They weren’t hours of me performing duties. They were just afternoons of sitting on the couch, idly watching whatever, making jokes about the things on the screen. I began to order more pizza and make less steamed kale. I let out the occasional ‘fuck.’ Once they hit middle school, they did too. We negotiated and laughed at ourselves. Tears virtually stopped for all parties concerned. A deep peace settled over the place. It has been five wonderful years of this now.
This weekend was Mother’s Day. It wasn’t until tonight, when it was all over, that I realized just how perfect everything was. On Saturday I went out for garden stuff. When I came back, both my kids met me at the driveway with conspiratorial smiles, asking why I was back so soon and instructing me to go back out. An hour later I found out why: they’d cleaned the house for Mother’s Day. They’d bought a bouquet at CVS and supplemented it with flowers picked from my garden. My daughter had instructed my son to get me a Mother’s Day card and had to send him back out when he accidentally came home with a birthday card instead.
When they presented it to me, she said, “I’m sorry that it says, ‘You’re a blessing.’ That’s a little too religious for me.'”
“It was the only one that didn’t say, ‘step-mother,'” my son chimed in. We laughed at the fact that maybe they should have bought one of those and just crossed out “step.” They revealed to me that, rather than return the birthday card, they just saved it for my birthday next month.
On Sunday, we went to one of my book signings, about two hours away in Pennsylvania. We made a road trip out of it, taking my mom on the long, sunny drive. They hung out at a street fair while I signed books, then we took a leisurely stroll to the car, stopping to look at art work. When we got home, I gave my mom a container full of yellow flowers that I’d put together in a half-barrel for her. (Yellow flowers are her favorite). Then I took a long nap while the kids each did their thing in their rooms. There was no fancy dinner, no post to Facebook meant to draw envy. It was just happiness.
It was when I woke up that it came to me: everything about this weekend was perfect. It wasn’t the old perfection, the forced one, but a sweet and simple acceptance of what is. And, finally, what is is beautiful, full of book events and children, now teenagers, who finally feel like my favorite people on Earth. Not because they’re supposed to be, but because they are. They are the people I most want to be myself around. And so, today, it was finally Mother’s Day.