A month before my younger daughter left for college, I embraced the fact that I was a terrible mother.
The University had apparently contracted with an outside vendor to deliver care packages to the students living in the campus dorm rooms. When I opened the mail one day, a pre-printed card with the caption “A Note from Mom” dropped out of one of the envelopes. I read the enclosed letter, which gave me the opportunity to purchase a series of food packages that would be delivered to my adult child throughout the course of the year. It also suggested that I would not want to be the type of parent who would allow my daughter to experience the agony of being left out when all the other students were receiving their care packages at school.
It doesn’t take much to make my imagination run wild. I closed my eyes and visualized a grizzled turnkey struggling to push an enormous cart full of pre-packaged snack food down the dormitory corridors. A line of eager students reach for their packages and their computer generated notes from Mom, somersaulting through the air in excitement. Kind of like a cross between a Busby Berkeley musical from the 1930s and an episode of Orange is the New Black. Pan in to my own daughter, who is huddled in the corner of her room in the fetal position, sobbing and snotting into her brand new Twin XL dorm sheets. No care package for you, my pretty.
I started to laugh hysterically.
My daughter ran downstairs to see what was wrong with me. This happens quite often in our house. I showed her the letter and said, “You’re going to be nineteen next month. You have a Sam’s Club membership and a car. You also have my credit card. Do you really think you’re going to be scarred for life if you don’t get a goody box and a note just because someone else got one? I’m getting a little too old for this kind of peer pressure.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s nice to have snacks.”
“You don’t even like half the stuff that’s in those things,” I said. “For that kind of money, I can take you out shopping and buy you food you’ll actually eat. And do you really need a note from mommy at your age?”
So there. I was a terrible mother.
It didn’t start out that way. When I was pregnant with my first child, I subscribed to every parenting magazine on the face of the earth, blissfully unaware of what I was getting myself into. I tried environmentally friendly cloth diapers for a while, until I realized that they were no match for the vicious outpourings of the infant intestinal tract. I also began to question the pictures in the magazines of all the well-dressed mothers holding their immaculate offspring. In my experience, the best outfit for holding an infant or toddler is a heavy duty rain slicker. Young children have many orifices. The things that come out of those orifices generally wind up on the mother’s clothing. Any garment with care instructions that does not include the use of a garden hose is strictly off-limits.
Things really began to reach critical mass when my older daughter reached her toddler years. According to the magazines, a good mother would take the time to serve her child a perfect piece of buttered toast carved into the likeness of a cartoon character, then delivered to the table carefully plated with apples shaped like butterflies and carrot strips arranged into fairy wings. My child could have cared less. As long as she had multiple small bowls filled with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and ranch dressing to dip everything into, she was happy. The parenting magazines offered nothing of value to a woman who had given birth to the Condiment Queen.
By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I had allowed all of my parenting magazine subscriptions to lapse. My older daughter was ecstatic about the new arrival. She would be getting a sister, a brand new playmate. For nine months, I was the best mom in the universe. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Instead of a playmate, I brought home a damn baby. I tried to make it up to my firstborn. At her request, I spent lots of extra time sitting with her in the living room, holding her new baby sister and watching TItanic on videotape over and over and over again. Surprisingly enough, no matter how many times we watched it, the story did not end well for most of the cast. The baby didn’t seem to mind, but I don’t recommend this activity to any new mother coping with raging postnatal hormones and a recent episiotomy.
Apparently the marathon sessions of Titanic had more of an impact than I’d expected. By the time she turned two, my second child was a tough little nugget who had her own opinion about what constituted being a good playmate. I watched as my two daughters wrestled over a stuffed toy and decided to dispense some sage parenting advice. I tapped my oldest on the shoulder and said, “I would let go of that toy if I were you. She’s going to hurt you.”
The Condiment Queen laughed and said, “She’s only two. I’m eight and a half. She can’t hurt me.”
“Have it your way,” I said, as my older daughter was dragged across the rough carpet on her knees, still clutching the stuffed animal.
As I was bandaging the rug burns, I realized that some profound life lessons can be learned in early infancy. Considering the size of the average door, there was probably more than enough room for both Jack and Rose to share that flotation device as it drifted away from the Titanic, but I think everyone knows how that situation worked out. The baby had obviously observed that the outcome was much better for Rose than it was for Jack. Her sister also figured it out by the time her scrapes healed.
Luckily, both my children survived childhood, despite the Titanic. Over the years, I think I grew into my role as a terrible mother. I willfully refused to think for my children and, although I would always provide them with advice, they both knew that they were expected to face the consequences of the decisions they made. I wasn’t there to be their oversized best buddy, either. If they behaved badly, I figured it was my job to let them know they were being jerks and they shouldn’t feel good about it. One year my younger daughter, always a top student, got a bad grade on a test. Her teacher told her that she needed to return her test paper to school the next day with my signature on it. Knowing full well what would happen if she showed me the test, my daughter decided that she was going to forge my signature on the paper. She got caught. When she had to own up to what had happened, I told her that I was upset that she had done badly on the test, but I was even more disappointed by the lousy job she’d done forging my signature. After all, she was the daughter of an art major and I let her know that I expected much better work from her in the future. A little humor never hurts when you’re a terrible mother.
I always let my girls read whatever they wanted, as long as they were able to understand the material. As a terrible mother, I believed that the age of the mind doesn’t always correspond with the age of the body. I routinely sent notes to the librarian at the middle school to permit access to the “secret” part of the library that housed controversial books. Thankfully, by this point my daughter had given up on a life of crime. My signature was real on these notes. The same rules applied to television and movies, which we watched together as a family. I was never afraid to discuss uncomfortable topics with them and never hesitated to answer even the most awkward questions. The real world was out there waiting for them, and they would meet up with it sooner or later, whether I tried to shelter them or not. Since I had stopped reading all the parenting magazines years ago, I wasn’t a bit interested in trying to keep them as little children forever. I figured it was my job to turn them into adults, and, as terrible as I was, I stuck with the program and enjoyed every stage of the process.
Through the years, I think they might have learned a thing or two. They both know that if you make a commitment to do something, you don’t back out. If things don’t work out the way you expect, you regroup and move on. They know that if you take a job, you show up to work on time and do your work to the best of your ability. They know that you should try to learn something new every day and you should never let anyone put shackles on your mind or spirit. They know that you should treat the people around you with compassion and understanding. There is always room for someone else on that floating door if you’re willing to give a little ground. And they know that if they don’t do the right thing, their terrible mother will still let them know about it.
Over the past few months, I’ve made multiple trips to Sam’s Club with my younger daughter, loading the trunk of my Jeep with snacks and beverages that she’ll actually eat, and even share with her friends. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single occasion where she’s been left alone, sobbing into her pillow as everyone else gets a care package.
Not buckling to peer pressure feels pretty good.
A Terrible Mother