One of the best pieces of parenting advice that I ever received was from a stranger. It was one of those days where I was especially grateful for my job as a stay-at-home mom, because my workspace that day was the park. The sky was blue and the sun was warm. I had my feet buried in the sand, and I was juggling sippie cups and shovels. Everything should have been perfect, but of course, I am a mom, and so I was worrying.
My oldest, my son, was five, and it’s funny now, because he’s sixteen, and I look back and wonder how I didn’t know how to handle issues with five-year-olds. But then I look ahead and realize I have no idea how to handle issues with seventeen-year-olds! I homeschooled my kids for preschool, partly because preschool is so expensive, and partly because I could give them individualized attention that I didn’t think they’d get at a school. I taught them to sit quietly and listen to stories, I taught them to count, and to add, and to read. I was happy with that, but then I was worried about sending my son to kindergarten because he’d never been at a school that wasn’t taught by Mom. Our school offered half-day kindergarten, and I wasn’t sure if I should do that, or throw him right into the full day classes.
I struck up a conversation with another mom at the park that morning, someone I didn’t know. This other mom, no doubt with her own worries, listened to me detail my anxiety, and then she smiled and said, “You know, there is no way to be a perfect mother. But there are lots of different ways to be a great one.”
I sat there in the park, and my thoughts turned immediately to my grandmother and how she allowed ping-pong-ball-gun fights in the house. I thought about my mother with her boxes of glitter and paints and her abhorrence of messes. I thought about myself, with my love of beautiful days at the park but my hatred of sunscreen, bug spray, and sand-filled shoes.
We are not perfect, are we? It is probably absurd that we try, because the world is not made for things to work out perfectly. We pay prices for nice things, not always monetary. Sunburns after the beach, piles of wet boots that follow snow-fort making, scraped knees in shorts weather. There is no perfect. But we moms try so hard anyway, don’t we?
So what makes a great mother? Is it never losing your temper? Because I would be out on that one for sure. Is it never losing track of one of your kids in the library? Never swearing in front of children, even when you see an enormous spider in the house? Always having your toddler craft projects work out, and your snacks be healthy, and your 70 degree afternoons be spent outside? To me, those all sound like reaching for perfection again.
I sat in the park that day, and I wondered if my kids saw me as a great mother. I still do wonder that. Maybe there’s nothing specific that makes a mom great. Maybe it has nothing to do with kindergarten or driver’s ed or how strict your rules are, but everything to do with whether your kids feel loved. And maybe it is specific things too, like making fresh-squeezed orange juice every day (my other grandmother), like going to great lengths to pretend Santa Claus has visited even though everyone knows better (my mother), like annoying your children by pretending the bus to Disney World is also a ride and putting your hands up when you go downhill (me)–things that make life an adventure. And all our adventures are different.
Maybe it’s showing your kids that you aren’t a perfect mother, and that it’s okay that they are not perfect too.