There are scenes from my childhood that play out in my mind when I think of my mother. She’s standing at the couch, in an ivory cardigan with round, wooden buttons. Her long hair is damp and air drying over her shoulders and down her back. The Waltons are on TV, but she’s facing away, holding a towel to her chest as she wraps it into a neat rectangle and places it atop a pile.
In another scene, she’s at the stove, stirring sauces or lowering a casserole dish into the oven.
She’s quartering oranges and filling gallon-sized Zip-Loc bags for my sister and me to take to our soccer games.
She’s sneaking into my bedroom, after midnight, to kiss my cheek after returning home from a night shift at the hospital.
She’s waiting for me at dusk on a November evening after basketball practice. In a world before smartphones, she sits in the driver’s seat of a Ford Taurus station wagon. Just waiting.
Twenty-plus years later, I shake out a bag of clean—but wrinkled from having been forgotten in the dryer for two days—clothing onto the couch and tell my sons to start folding.
My kids have co-op classes, and I ask them to make their own lunches to bring—but no peanut butter because one of the other kids at the co-op has an allergy.
We’re late for class because I need to stop for coffee. When class is over I rush to get everyone into the van because I have work to do.
As I sit in a minivan barking at my five-year-old to buckle the seatbelt while simultaneously brushing munchkin crumbs from the passenger seat, I think of my mother—her ability to maneuver through motherhood seamlessly. She was just so good at it.
How did I not inherit that from her?
On the ride home from co-op, I tap my fingers on the steering wheel as we catch red light after red light. In the seats behind me, my children play the “why” game, which is really only a means to annoy one another.
“Why did you forget your book?”
“Because Mama packed my stuff and didn’t see it.”
“Why did she do that?”
“Because she was being nice and helpful.”
“Because she’s Mama.”
“Because we’re her kids, so she’s a mama.”
“Because she wanted to be a mother.”
“. . . because God.”
“You know that saying ‘because God’ ends the game! That’s the only reason you said it!”
Sitting at a light, I watch pedestrians cross the road in front of my car. I think of our family, of my husband and myself before we had children, and of the history we’ve built, mostly through stubborn perseverance and blessings beyond what we could’ve imagined when we first exchanged vows nearly fifteen years ago. The light turns, and as I press down on the gas, I shake my head, thinking of my son’s reasoning behind why I am a mother.
I wish I were eleven again and had a faith as pure and as simple as those two words.
I think of our family, of my husband and myself before we had children, and of the history we’ve built, mostly through stubborn perseverance and blessings beyond what we could’ve imagined when we first exchanged vows nearly fifteen years ago.
I wish it were as simple as God declaring: Melanie should be a mother. She will be great! And it was so. When, the reality of becoming a parent was more like jumping out of a plane, squeezing my husband’s hand tightly, and shouting, “Here goes nothing!”
You want to know why I left my child’s book behind? Because I forgot.
I forget so many things in my whirlwind state of existence. Packing his bag was not the act of kindness or a motherly gesture of any sort that he so generously credits me with. Rather, it was simply me, trying to get from one place to the next with as little resistance as possible.
And as to why I am, why I chose to become, a mother—I can’t even remember anymore. But here I am.
That’s not to say I’m not thankful or happy to have my children. I am both, many times over. Sometimes, though, parenting feels as if I’ve been given a job that I had no right to take and was terribly ill-equipped to handle, especially in comparison to how I remember my mother. Where she was unconditional encouragement and effortless comfort, I am frantic and frazzled and a blur of, “you’re okay,” and, “I think you can handle this on your own.”
Sometimes, though, parenting feels as if I’ve been given a job that I had no right to take and was terribly ill-equipped to handle.
The next week, I’m taking pictures of a family with a newborn. It’s their second child, and they’re careful to incorporate the toddler, as much as she is willing to bend, to sit, to kiss her baby brother on the forehead or cheek. I recognize everything, and for a moment, I see it as though I’m looking back in time to my own transition from one child to two children. The exhaustion. The toys scattered in one corner and piles of baby blankets and boppy in another.
I stand on the bed, balancing my camera, and as I ask them all to look down at the infant, the toddler reels back from the family hug, hops off the bed, and clatters down the hallway, demanding juice and gummies. The dad unwraps his arm from his wife and baby and follows down the hall after their daughter.
The mom looks up at me, shaking her head, her eyes tired and apologetic. “How do you do it? You have four? My goodness.”
In black-and-white scenes that I’ll paint for them, I hope they’ll see the beauty I see—even in the huff and tantrum of a toddler in an adorable tutu, pigtails bouncing as she stomps out of the room.
It’s the stuff of real life. It’s the stuff of their real life.
“Oh,” I tell the mother, “I do it just like you do.”
But, she’s not listening. She’s looking down and shushing her little one. She’s in the moment. We all are. And in the moment, we don’t always see the beauty. In the moment, we don’t see the big picture. We just see the spilled paint or the smudges that haven’t yet been brushed into beautiful trees, a forest, a whole life of our own design, one brushstroke at a time. I snap a picture of her, head tilted down, finger tracing her son’s cheek. Then, I go.
I call my mother the next morning, intending to glean some sort of answer to how she had such grace in the midst of the chaos that parenting is. The subject never comes up. I have to pause repeatedly to ask my children why on earth they haven’t started their schoolwork yet. My mother and I talk briefly about Thanksgiving plans, about her upcoming vacation, about how I am still months behind in my editing projects for my photography business.
Two days later, she comments on something I’ve written about feeling like a mess. “I don’t know how you do it,” she tells me.
And my heart laughs.
We live in a world of comparison, where there are hashtags to glorify or give voice to our desires to be better—to be more like those we admire.
But in reality, all we are called to be—ever—is simply, truly ourselves. Not our best friends. Not our siblings. Not the most beautiful and flawless members of our Instagram feeds. Not even our own mothers. We are called to be authentic and to be ourselves.
In reality, all we are called to be—ever—is simply, truly ourselves.
And none of the people we admire so highly are doing anything more than simply being who they are called to be, which may or may not include having perfectly Pinterest-worthy photographs of their uncluttered desktops or their drool-worthy homemade suppers. I can be happy for them without longing to be them.
And the same goes for my admiration of my own mother, seen through the rose-colored glasses of being her child. As much as I have been shaped by her care and affection, and as much as I can admire her, I’m not her. And I don’t need to be.
In fact, if there’s anything at all that I should take from her years of pouring her love and energy into me, it’s that I’m worth every one of her efforts—just as I am.
Photo Credit: Simply Mella Photography.