The Best Mother’s Day Gift for a Dysfunctional Mom

Growing up, I associated Mother’s Day with plump old ladies with glasses and soft hands who held children close to their chests and sang, gave them bowls of strawberry ice cream, and drove them to ballet class. My mother had told me that her mother was born the same year—the same week, even—as the very first Mother’s Day in 1914, and so for me, my doting Nana and the occasion were linked. My mother has become the doting Nana (though she’s tall rather than plump), and in her constant dedication to mentoring my decision-making and to nurturing my children to be kind, thoughtful, and responsible little people, she defines the old-school model of mothers that I had always revered. Now that I’m a contemporary mom, though, Mother’s Day carries new connotations that are far from cozy and sympathetic like a grandmother’s bosom.

Motherhood has evolved its own full-blown culture of craft projects, organic cooking, cute survival tricks, and wholesome extracurricular activities. It pulses with insinuations that often make me feel dark and lonely with guilt. I have learned that if I fail to play Day Spa or Good Guys versus Bad Guys with Maddie and Drew and turn on Nick, Jr. (it’s like preschool on t.v.), I am most likely damaging their cognitive development. I have learned that if all four of our family members do not eat dinner together, we will not stay together. This mantra makes no concessions for the worn-out first-grader and preschooler who need to hit the pillow at 7:00 or else risk utter breakdown the following day, or for their hardworking dad whose commute brings him home as late as 6:40 some nights. I have learned that at least in our town, parent meet-and-greets and school volunteering opportunities are scheduled mainly for the non-working. And I have learned that I am irrevocably behind on reporting every milestone that my kids accomplish—first loose tooth, first bite of salmon, first poop of the day—on Facebook.

Before I became a mother, boy, did I know how to parent! I refused to be one of those prissy neat freaks who wouldn’t let my kids roll in the mud or concoct soups of flour and water and spices from the kitchen cabinet, who wouldn’t encourage the dissection of dead worms on the sidewalk or the eruption of a water-balloon war in the backyard. If my kids threw tantrums or rustled in the racks of T.J. Maxx, if they couldn’t sit still in the booth at the 99, I vowed I’d yank them out of there so fast their feet would come right out of their Stride Rite shoes. We would volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters at the holidays so that they would understand the value of a dollar and the true riches of life (maybe they wouldn’t wear their $50 Stride Rite shoes to these places). I had it all planned, as many of us do.

When I was pregnant with my first, Maddie, older women looked at me with dreamy eyes and sighs of admiration, swept up in the nostalgia of their child-bearing days. My childless female contemporaries asked me the questions our culture had taught them to ask, probably not the ones they really wanted to—Do you have any strange cravings? Are you tired? Does heartburn keep you up at night?—and politely bought me infant dresses dabbed in duckies and winter buntings with teddy-bear-faced hoods. The teenage boys I taught acted as though everything were completely normal, that I hadn’t actually swelled to the size of the school’s star offensive lineman, and that they hadn’t already imagined my participation in the act that got me pregnant in the first place. Everyone withheld the truth from me in his or her own way. And then one day a fellow teacher, Karen, the mom of two young children herself, pulled me aside by the forearm and said, “Don’t believe what anyone says about parenting. It is so f—ing hard.”

Karen’s warning, as harsh and disillusioned as it sounds, has helped to keep me right-minded since the days that Maddie and Drew were born. If nobody had signaled to me that the storms of self-doubt and helplessness, of impatience and resentment, were coming fast and ruthless—and more important, that they were normal—I would be suffering even more than I am now from a bad-mother complex. I find that I spend a lot of time rationalizing that my mothering decisions are reasonable. It’s healthful for my children to see their mom striving for advanced degrees, dedicating time to her own passions; they need to observe what it means to be independent and to nourish the soul. It’s acceptable for them to spend an hour or two with their iPads a day—the technological revolution is not a revolution to their generation; it’s a lifestyle. It’s understandable that I might forget to apply eczema cream to Maddie’s arm, or that I might dress Drew in crew socks that are so tight they leave fences of imprint in his ankles; these are not life-threatening offenses and their bodies will heal. Hey—I work. My mind is overpacked. My priorities are in order. If they weren’t, I would be leading Girl Scout Daisy meetings and coaching youth soccer, and Maddie and Drew would be reading Nabokov.

So, for this Mother’s Day, I have decided to give myself the gift of forgiveness.

As a mom, I am dysfunctional when it comes to…

1. imaginative role-playing

2. Lego-building

3. spending long periods of time outdoors, tossing balls or running lemonade stands

4. shutting off the t.v. in favor of brain-stimulating conversations

5. not feeding my kids processed foods like Stouffers mac-and-cheese and fishsticks

6. resisting the lure of my computer when I get home from work

7. accepting loving beatings from Maddie when she jumps, sits, and hangs on me

8. treating Drew’s self-stifling perfectionism with sensitivity

9. writing timely thank-you notes for birthday gifts

10. overlooking Maddie’s and Drew’s missions to get filthy on purpose rolling in the dirt under the swings or running Fluff-covered fingers through their hair

But I am kick-ass when it comes to…

1. forcing Maddie and Drew to brush their teeth rigorously, at least twice a day

2. teaching them that their own beds are safe, desirable places so that they’ll stay out of mine

3. drawing and coloring

4. hosting impromptu dance parties in the living room

5. not freaking out when Maddie and Drew get sick

6. keeping my voice low and even when I reprimand them

7. taking them to Barnes and Noble to pick out new books

8. feeding, dressing, and washing them (for the most part) in the mornings before I head to work

9. cheering them on when they try new things

10. allowing them to dump their empty juice boxes and Goldfish cracker bags on the floor of my car and not caring one whit

This Mother’s Day, what are you forgiving, and loving, yourself for?

Categories: Motherhood/ParenthoodTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Liz, giving that I’m a mother of two sons who survived a working mom’s schedule and are great dads, I’d say my job was well done. I had tremendous guilt, and probably spent hundreds at Toy R Us thinking that’s how I could compensate. With everything that’s on your plate, you do the best you can and in the end, they turn out just fine. If only the worrying could be eliminated, mothers would be a happier lot.

    • I know, Maureen! I actually think that if it weren’t for the messages from magazines, t.v., and schools that make me feel insufficient, I would feel pretty good about my job as a mother. I am not a worrier by nature, which does help. We joke about kids not coming with instruction manuals, but society seems to fill in that blank from the moment the kids come out of the womb. And it’s definitely overwhelming.

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