Category Archives: Musings of the Zen Master

Perfection and Motherhood

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We were at a party, having a glass of wine and talking loudly to compete with the din when she told me she admired my parenting. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly so I responded with the articulate, “Huh?” She repeated her comment and I said, “For all you know, I could beat my children…” and then launched into an intellectual rant about curated lives in blogging and the cult of personality. She shifted her weight, looked at me and said, “Can you stop? Can you just say ‘Thank you’?”

I’ve thought about this conversation a lot recently, thought about all the factors that led me to so quickly dismiss the compliment. Our friendship is one that began online and has grown through stolen moments at conferences and glasses of wine shared while passing through each other’s cities. She hasn’t met my kids or seen me parent so – yes – we can talk about careful curation in blogging but she knows enough to judge my authenticity. I think about the difficulty most women have in accepting a compliment so that played a part too. How often do we dismiss them, turn conversation away from them, make jokes at our own expense to avoid the discomfort of small kindnesses? And why do we do that? I can’t answer those questions but know that I’m not alone in doing it.

But more than anything, I keep returning to the conversation from that  night because I can’t help wondering when perfection became the standard by which I judge my parenting.

When I reflect on my time in high school, I don’t think about my accomplishments. I rarely talk about the fact that I spoke at graduation or lettered in Debate but I will tell you about the B I received in Geometry and the fact that it ruined my 4.0 GPA.

When I talk about my time at Grinnell College, I will spin tales of receiving my first F on a Chemistry test and tell you that I spent way too much time writing music, playing the guitar and drinking with the rugby team. I think of college as the time when I learned about failure  yet I graduated with a B average.

Have I ever told you that I worked nights to put myself through graduate school and had a 4.0 GPA? Of course not…unless I also tell you that it was an easy program and I somehow got lucky.

When I think about my 15 years as a county Adult Protection investigator, I remember the first time a supervisor told me that I had not done an adequate job on an investigation and the burnout that marked the end of my time there. I don’t think about the people I helped or the fact that I was instrumental in sending an appellate court judge to prison.

Even putting those accomplishments on the page makes me uncomfortable, qualified as they are by framing in the context of failure and falling short. This is beyond an irritating tendency towards pessimism, beyond self-deprecation. This is the legacy of perfectionism – that sense that one can never do enough – and it has crept into my parenting which should come as no surprise. Somewhere along the line, wanting to do better than my parents wasn’t enough. Being a good mother wasn’t enough. I had to be the perfect mother and I know that I’m not alone in my struggle with this ideal.

I know that part of this is that we know more about children these days, know more about how our actions impact them later in life. Did you interact with your baby enough, show them all those picture books with black and white images? Did you breast feed and introduce solids at the right time? Do you encourage but not pressure? Are you patient at all times, never raising your voice? Did you do enough crafts with your kids, teach them to properly grip a crayon and pencil? Do you read to them? Do you read so they see that behavior modeled? Do you limit their media time? Are you on your phone too much? I could list a million more things that we mothers of privilege think about on a regular basis and yes – there is privilege (education and economic to name only two) inherent in these questions. My own mother used to remark on my angst about motherhood regularly, “You think too much. When I raised you kids…” and then she’d launch into some story about independence with a little pro-spanking commentary thrown into the mix. As she spoke, I’d often think, “Yeah…you could have thought a little bit more about your parenting…” and, of course, there is truth in that too. But my mother grew up poor and raised me as a working class single mother. I am a middle class woman with a graduate degree and a partner of 21 years. I have the luxury of analysis and intellectualization that she never had and increasingly, that luxury feels like a curse as well.

I write so much about motherhood and think I write the truth – the moments when I am exactly the mother my children need and those when I am not. Lately, I think I’ve written more about those good moments, the ones when the words come easily and I say the right things to my kids or don’t but make amends. Maybe I need to write more about the struggles, the days when I raise my voice or use sarcasm to comment on their less than stellar behavior. There are those moments too. Or maybe, I should just stop for a moment and say “I am a good mother” and sit with the discomfort of that declaration knowing that “good” doesn’t have to be “perfect.”

I am a good mother.

How many of us can say that without giving in to the temptation to qualify the statement?

I am a good mother.

I’m saying it today and resisting the urge to say more, knowing that I might not be able to say it tomorrow.

PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH

Appreciating the View

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Several weeks ago, Zeca asked me if I would chaperone her class trip to the Lake Country Land School. This was her last trip with her class, her last as a third grader and it was important to her. I knew that but I must admit that the idea of spending three full days (and two nights) with 28 kids ranging in age from seven to nine was daunting.

The truth is kids scare the hell out of me.

I am good with my kids and the kids who’ve been in my life for years but I am awkward with kids I don’t know. I agreed to chaperone the trip but admitted to Zeca that I was nervous about it and she said, “Mom, you’ll be fine. Just make sure to be funny because I’ve told everyone how funny you are so they’re expecting that.”

No pressure. No pressure at all.

So, last week, I spent three days on a farm with 28 kids and survived. I moved an electric fence to create a new pasture for the sheep and llamas. I accompanied children to the tree house every time I was asked. I trudged through creeks, comforted kids crying because they were wet and cold and carried the skull of a rodent in my pocket for a kid who wanted it but didn’t want to touch it. I peeked into a bee hive and tasted fresh honey. I sat in a bird blind with kids and watched goldfinches and woodpeckers and nuthatches and an indigo bunting in silence. I stood at the edge of a pond – absolutely still – and looked for the tiniest of tadpoles.

I also learned a lot about my daughter while I watched her run through the fields playing soccer with the boys, wading fearlessly into a muddy pond and spinning in circles with a friend under a cloudy blue sky that made the world seem as large as it is. I saw myself in her in the looks she gave me when a conversation with another kid bored her. This reflection of myself was an unexpected revelation but one that will help me support her as she navigates friendship and the inherent frustrations and disappointments. I wanted to tell her, “You are much too young to be over it all, my dear,” but I smiled knowingly instead.

I saw her and loved what I saw. This view of our children as whole beings in a  life we often know little about is so different than the one we see day to day. Seeing her in that place with those other children and adults was worth the awkwardness I felt and the loss of sleep as five girls giggled me to sleep each night.

The last night, Zeca sat in my lap and a friend of hers nestled in close to my side and others lay down near me while their teacher told a story in the dim light of the homestead great room. I listened to the story but mostly to the sounds of the room – the sniffles and shuffling and the small laughs – and with my child held tight in my arms and my head resting on the little one at my side, it felt like I was meant to be there.

Of course, the next day that feeling was gone as I threatened to take away sticks and intervened in a shoving match but maybe there is a lesson there too – nothing lasts. Those perfect moments are brief but the hard ones are too.

When we got home, I asked Zeca how I’d done and she said, “Mom, you did a great job. You were nice and funny and everyone liked you.”

“Are you glad that I went?”

“Yes. Thank you so much.”

Really, that’s the review that mattered most.

PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH

We Are Here

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Yesterday was Mother’s Day and today would have been my mother’s 79th birthday. I actually had to check the math on a calculator because how could my mother be 79? The answer is that she really can’t be because she is frozen in my mind at 73, the age she was when we said our last words to each other, “I love you” and “I’ll see you next time.”

I think of my mother often as she is the central character in so many stories of my past, the ghost I still fight in my mind, in my parenting. Of course, time does give perspective if not complete healing and I can see her differently than I used to, can find comfort in memories of a well-timed smile, the way she chewed gum, her strength and pride, her determination. I can hold onto the best of her in a way that I couldn’t before and I find that sometimes, I want to keep her close to me as equal parts inspiration and cautionary tale.

I have two of her wedding rings – one from her marriage to my father and one from her marriage to my stepfather. I have no memories of her wearing the one from my father so the one from my stepfather holds more meaning. I can close my eyes and see it on her finger, can remember her hands and her perfectly manicured nails that never gave away that she preferred to spend most of her time in the garden, working the earth.

On the day of our wedding, I slipped her wedding ring onto the ring finger of my right hand as if doing so would somehow bring her along, as if doing so would send a message across time that said, “Look how far we’ve come.”  I never thought I’d see the day I would legally marry and she never did.

I slipped her ring onto my finger once again as I headed to the theater for Listen To Your Mother last Thursday. The setting on her ring is flashy in a way that I have never been but I wore it anyway and took her along. All night I was aware of that ring because every time I tried to put my hands in my pockets – which I do more often than I realized – it would catch. Each time was a reminder, a whisper of “I am here.”  And as in life,  there were times when that presence irritated me which felt right too.

This blog, my writing, Listen To Your Mother are all proof of how much good can come from the hardest things. I am here and she is too – in the face I see in the mirror, in my hands, in the way I throw my head back and laugh loudly and without apology, in the way I grit my teeth and purse my lips when I am determined to get my way. But there is more to me and I find that I trust that to be true more than I did in the past. Each time one of my children curls onto my lap or snuggles closer to me in bed, I know that I am also making my own way. We are here. The good and the hard. Together.

We Say Goodbye a Piece at a Time

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I had a dream last night I was at a party filled with old friends. It was a private party at a bar or restaurant and the lighting was poor in that way that’s meant to create ambiance but simply makes everyone squint. I arrived fashionably late so the party was in full swing when I walked in. I greeted people as I took off my jacket and a friend grabbed my hand to take me further inside but another friend stepped into our path, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.” She gave me an awkward half-hug but her smile was warm and I felt like this was my place, that everything was just as it should be.

I woke up this morning with that feeling but then remembered that the friend in the dream – the one with the warm smile and awkward hugs – is not my friend anymore and hasn’t been for about eight years now.

I’m still not exactly sure what happened between us. I can only assume that I hurt her in ways I didn’t intend but I never had the opportunity to make amends. I pride myself on being a good friend though I know I’m not a perfect friend. I make mistakes. I hurt feelings without meaning to or fail to show up in ways that I should. But, I also do my best to be accountable for what I’ve done, to listen and try to do better. This is why many of my friends are people I’ve known since I was a teenager.

But this friendship? The one with the woman in my dream? I had to let it go and I’ve never really gotten over it. I think of her less often but I still have moments when I remember something she said that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. She is still a part of my old stories and I think of the way she could make a conversation sizzle with energy. I wonder how she’s doing, what her life is like now that her kids are older.

I hadn’t thought of her recently but yesterday, I was putting things in a bag to take to Goodwill and came across the baby blanket she made for Miguel. I started to put it in the bag to give away but set it aside instead and finished going through pants and shirts the kids have outgrown. Before I closed up the bag, I looked at the blanket again and realized there was no reason to keep it for Miguel because he had no special connection to it. I was the one who had the special connection to it because I had once had a special connection with the person who had made it.

I thought about the things I keep – sweet cards from Luisa, drawings from the kids, the kids’ first shoes, photographs and things that evoke the best of the past – and I realized that it was time to let this go. I folded the blanket neatly and tucked it into the bag before tying it tightly shut.

And then I had the dream. I wish it was a premonition but I know it was only a wish.

I’m linking up with Heather for Just Write. Check out the other posts here.