Sunday, May 09, 2010

"Imperfect moms: Give yourself a break"

Happy Mother's Day! A friend shared this on Facebook and I wanted to pass it along. :)

I have a confession to make: I forgot my son’s birthday one year. Ben was turning 14, and while no excuse in the universe will ever suffice, his birthday does land at the worst possible time, in the middle of harvest, at the end of July. Also, that summer, my sister and her family were visiting, and when I am with Rebecca I forget that the rest of the world exists.

She and I were sitting in the kitchen that day drinking coffee and talking obsessively in Pennsylvania Dutch, and in the living room I heard one of my nephews softly singing “Happy Birthday.”

The words didn’t penetrate until the second line, and then the terrible, crushing truth closed in — I had completely forgotten Ben’s birthday.

I screamed in horror, hugged him, begged his forgiveness, all but groveled at his feet. He was obviously hurt but graciously forgave me. Now, almost three years later, he laughs about it, but I am convinced there’s still a festering wound deep in his heart that will erupt in quiet sadness the rest of his life, and when his son turns 14 someday, Ben will remember his own pain and rejection and quietly wipe away a tear.

I was going to be the perfect mom, really I was. I was not going to repeat what I saw as my mom’s shortcomings, and I for sure wasn’t going to copy the playground moms who yelled terrible threats when their kids didn’t want to get off the swings. I looked down on acquaintances who didn’t read Dr. Seuss to their toddlers or who made their 10-year-olds take way too much responsibility with the babies.

True, I didn’t repeat the mistakes I observed; I just invented a whole new set of my own. I punished unjustly. I got sucked into talking on the phone with a possessive friend and brushed off my frantic 5-year-old until she burst into frustrated tears. I bought too few Christmas gifts that the children wanted and too many that I thought they ought to want. I didn’t put sunscreen on the children that time they went swimming at a family reunion in the Midwest and fried their little shoulders in the hot sun.

Then, of course, there was the forgotten birthday, and many more dark examples that I can’t bring myself to confess.

So Mother’s Day comes and among the pastel cards and lush bouquets and appreciative words, I feel the gnawing teeth of Regret and the sense that maybe I don’t deserve the gratitude because of everything I got wrong.

That’s when I know I need to remember Kenya.

We spent 3½ months there, six years ago, helping at a school and orphanage for boys. Most had been orphaned by AIDS and suffered worsening circumstances until finally they gravitated to the city and survived on the streets, eating what they could, sleeping on feed sacks, and sniffing chemicals that deluded them into feeling warm and well fed.

Whenever we went downtown, the street kids clustered us with their colorless, torn clothes and their dusty hair and their open, begging hands and their lifeless eyes. The lack of a mother in their lives was like a tangible force around them, and their pain clawed at my own mother-heart with an intensity that took my breath away and still does now, six years later.

The boys who had left the streets and lived at the orphanage seemed happy, most of the time. They were fed well and educated and kept busy. They slept on clean beds and were supervised by young dorm “dads” in their 20s. But sometimes, such as when their eyes filled with years of grief or they scraped their knees or they had a wonderful discovery to share, what they really needed was a mom, and they didn’t have one.

I slowly came to realize, as I watched these boys, that not only did they all need mothers, most of them would have done or given anything to get one.

Furthermore, none of them would have been been picky about what sort they got. She could work too hard, or she could sit around and let the house fall apart. She could be patient or lose her temper. She could be stern and silent or full of fun. Any mom who was there and cared even a little would be an astronomical improvement over what they had.

My accumulation of mistakes was smaller then than it is now, but I was just as hard on myself, and it was when I looked at the eyes of boys on the street and compared them with my children’s eyes — bright, curious, secure, confident — that I first began to give myself some grace. An imperfect mom, I realized, is infinitely, indescribably better than no mom at all.

If not having a mother is like being at sea level, and having a perfect, smiling, patient mom who never forgets to notify the tooth fairy is like being at the top of Mount Hood, then a flawed and scatterbrained mom who makes the kids pack their own lunches and punishes the wrong child now and then is actually about at Timberline Lodge.

I have told myself this many times since and shared it with other moms who feel they never quite get it right: an imperfect mother is really pretty good. Give yourself credit for showing up every day and loving your children and doing the best you can, I tell them, because that in itself makes a huge difference to a child. And, I add, give yourself some grace: We are allowed to make mistakes.

I will always feel sad about the missed birthday, but when I see my son’s eyes and think of the eyes of the orphan boys, I know that I was here, and I did the best I could, and it made all the difference in the world.

Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at

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