“I had to drop my kids off at the before-school care center this morning. I always feel so guilty when I do that.” I smiled at the speaker, a pediatrician with whom I work, and noticed her eyes were a little teary.
“Mother guilt,” I said. “We all have it. For me, the first pangs of guilt started when I sipped a cup of coffee during my pregnancy with my firstborn. I paid the price eleven-fold in heartburn, but every time I watch Abby stumble to the coffee pot and pour a cup at six a.m. I wonder if she shares my caffeine addiction because I couldn’t wait nine months to feed my habit. Still, these pangs of mother guilt are nothing as compared with the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award.
It’s true. I won the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award two years in a row, and was runner-up more times than I can count. As hard as we try to be perfect parents, we mess up. The bigger the mess-up, the closer we come to wearing the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.
My first attempt at this award came when Abby was an infant. She was a beautiful baby, dressed in cotton dresses I had carefully washed in Ivory Snow and soft booties I had hand-knit during my final months of pregnancy. I had nursed her and burped her and rocked her and gently carried her to her perfectly decorated bedroom to lay her down in a perfectly padded crib. Momentarily distracted when the phone rang, I misjudged my distance from the door frame, smacking her sweet little bald head against the woodwork. Because the boo-boo left no mark, I didn’t qualify for an award, but I clearly felt the pangs of mother guilt and wondered if I should be allowed to even touch my firstborn child ever again.
To my amazement, no troopers stormed my door to remove my baby from our home, and despite my ineptitude, the fates saw fit to send us two more children within the next three years. You would think that as I became more experienced, I would have drifted further and further from the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award, but that is not the case.
When Gabriel was five, he fell off the playground equipment down the hill from our townhouse. Gabe was prone to dramatic performances, so when I heard him wailing at the foot of the hill, I stood at our door to assess the damage. There was no blood, but he was dragging his right leg behind him, and wore an expression that would put Sarah Bernhardt to shame. Rather than running to his aid, I called out, “Come on, Gabe- you’re fine. Don’t be so dramatic- you can walk home.”
By the time he reached the house, my son’s face was streaked with muddy tears and his howls had not subsided. All my efforts to soothe him failed, so I finally took him to the pediatrician’s office, only to find he had fractured his coccyx. That year’s “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award was mine.
Perhaps my finest moment at “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” was the spring when Elizabeth was three. She and I were wrestling on the carpeted living room floor. Tickling her tummy, I began to roll over when I heard a sudden snap. Her giggles stopped and her eyes widened in shock, and then filled with tears. I was on the phone to the pediatrician’s office within seconds, and a few hours later, she was wearing a cast from her thigh to her toes. Yes folks, Momma-G broke her baby’s leg.
For six weeks, she wore that cast, and every time I looked at her, I felt horrific pangs of mother guilt. To add insult to injury, while we were in public places she would loudly plead, “Mommy, why did you have to break my leg?” I could actually feel the stares burning into my flesh. I felt that I had reached the apex of my “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” career, but as all mothers know, it can get worse, and it did. While still wearing the cast, she got chicken pox.
Actually, Gabe came down with them first. He suffered from allergies, so I didn’t really pay attention to his scratchy throat and sniffles, and sent him to school on a warm spring day. He came home from kindergarten sweaty and uncomfortable, so I helped him take off his shirt. His belly and back were covered with pox, and two weeks later, two thirds of the Weston School kindergarten were absent with chicken pox. Thank you very kindly, Momma-G. Please straighten your “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.
Now that my children are grown, these stories are fodder for hearty laughter at family reunions. I have come to realize that children are really quite resilient and forgiving. I have found that the things that caused the most guilt in me were the things that mattered not at all to them. They do not care that I sent them to school in mismatched socks, or spilled coffee on their homework. They do not mind that I made them wear hand-me-downs, watered down their orange juice to make it stretch further, and fashioned Halloween costumes from old sheets instead of buying them from the party store. They don’t care that we celebrated birthdays on the weekends, ate the generic store brand cereals and carried brown bag lunches.
What they did care about is this. They wanted to be hugged often, no matter how sweaty, dirty and sticky they were. They wanted to be listened to, even when their stories were long and convoluted and peppered with “and then, you know what happened?” They wanted see smiles more often than frowns. They wanted to hear encouragement instead of criticism, and coos instead of growls. Mostly, they just wanted to be loved.
When Abby was eight, we moved to a brand new town house with beige carpets and pristine walls. I wanted so badly for my children to live in a home they were proud of that I spent part of every day scrubbing fingerprints from the white walls. One day Abby asked me to play ball with her and her siblings. I was washing walls and told her I was too busy. She burst into tears and cried, “I hate this house! Ever since we moved here, all you do is clean!”
I looked at the the sponge dripping soapy water onto the beige carpet. I looked into daughter’s watery green eyes and realized that in ten short years she would be out of high school and never want me to play ball again. Tossing the sponge into the sink, I kissed her soft pink cheek and grabbed her hand.
“C’mon. Let’s play ball.”
Careful Mom… your crown is slipping.