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March 19, 2015
The Secret Life of Molly
I am a Terrible Mother
by Hannah Bird

I was going to be a perfect mother. Not good, but perfect. I read book after book. At the time they were “the right books.” I formed opinions. I had a plan. I knew how to handle parenting in every possible situation. I had done the work. I had the skills.

Then my first baby was born. At three years old she looked up at me with those sapphire blue eyes and said, “Mommy, do you know everything?” I said no. “Then where am I supposed to learn it?” she asked and then marched off in disgust. It’s kind of been downhill from there.

A few months ago I took one of those online quizzes that are what we do instead of reading Proust these days. It was a quiz about how many children I should have. I have six. The question suggested that I should have zero. And forgo getting a dog or cat.

My 16-year-old son laughed for a long time. “Well, they’re not wrong,” he said. Then he laughed some more. More than was probably polite.

It turns out that I am not a perfect mother. It’s worse than that. I am not only not perfect, but I have actually been bad at some things. Important things. I have been bad at things that mattered.

That first blue-eyed girl will be 21 next month. It boggles the mind. That first baby that I loved so madly and wanted to never let down is a woman now. And I have let her down. She is far too polite to laugh for hours at an online quiz. She is lovely and good. But the truth is, I failed in a lot of ways and she knows this.

I always imagined launching my adult children out into the world with joy and celebration. It would be a celebration of the people they had become and a parenting job well done. I now think that on a child’s 21st birthday you should take them out to dinner and apologize for everything you ever did.

My children are between 10 and 21 now. The wide-eyed adoration of small children has faded away. The unquestioning certitude of a child has been replaced with the endless questioning of teenagers. I am wrong all day. Some days I am wrong and tolerable. Some days I am wrong and the very worst. But the wrongness is constant.

I should be devastated. All I wanted was to be a perfect mother. And it turns out, I wasn't even a very good one.

I wanted to be a perfect mother because I thought I could make a perfect life for my kids. I could raise them perfectly and they would live perfectly and they would not suffer. Of course I didn't tell myself that. I said I just wanted to do it right. But deep down, I thought a job well done would save them.

It might have. We’ll never know. But the truth is, it’s OK.

It feels near blasphemous to write this now, but there was a time that I thought my mother was a terrible mother. I felt like she let me down in some very important ways at a really tough time in my life.  And that angry hurt girl was sure that a perfect mother would have made a perfect daughter with a perfect life.

My mother is the best person I know. She is my favorite person. Her presence alone is the most heavenly feeling. I know that now. She was an amazing mother. I know that too. She gave me incomparable gifts. She loves me. She loves me big.

And I was OK. Even when I thought the world was caving in, I really was fine. I suffered. I caught a blow or two. My millions of predictions of the end of my world all turned out to be just worries. I am my mother’s daughter. I will be fine.

My kids know that I wasn't a perfect mom. They know I am not a perfect person. They know my weaknesses. They are even angry at me about some things. But I am still fine.

I am fine because they are incredible. They are smart and tenacious and strong and beautiful. They are gracious and good. They are funny, hysterically funny. They work hard. They view others with compassion. They are delighted by differences.

They still love me. They call me with news. They call me when they’re bored. They hug me in the morning and when we go to bed. Sometimes I get lovely notes. My daughters share their lives with me. My youngest son still wants me to tickle his face. My oldest son still comes to me with righteous indignation when people think a ‘67 Mustang is a muscle car. We laugh at Fords (except Fairlanes) and all of the classic rock songs that are rip-offs of “Train, Train.”

All the things that I thought would come if I were a perfect mother came even though I wasn't one. Life is not perfect. We are OK.

Maybe you aren't a perfect parent either. Some people sure seem like they are crushing it. But if you are like me I just wanted to say keep trying. Love big. Apologize again and again. Then — be OK.

One evening a while back I was talking to my daughter who was living out of state. She was having some challenges. We talked about them. I helped all I could. As our call ended I said, “I love you, babe.” She said, “I love you, Mom.”

A few minutes later I called my mom. She was waiting for me to share how a medical test had gone. It hadn't gone well. I had challenges. We talked about them. She helped all she could and I was comforted. As our call was ending she said, “I love you, babe.” I said, “I love you, Mom.” Then I laughed and told her I had just had that conversation with my own daughter.

Mom was quiet for a minute and then said, “This is what we do, Hannah. This is how we knit the chaos in the universe together. We are bound by ten thousand generations of mothers and daughters saying, “I love you, babe.”

Imperfect parents and imperfect children. And love. It’s not the perfect mother I had aimed for.

It is so much better.

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