We have a saying in our house that we got from some 90’s dinosaur TV series… “Not the mama.” In the show it was used to explain how the baby felt about anyone who wasn’t his mother. In our house, it was used to explain any decision any woman made regarding her children that my husband didn’t understand.
Around the same time the church was telling fathers everywhere to be the head of the household. I realize that was always their teaching, but to combat feminism, they doubled down. Remember Promise Keepers? My husband and I attended church in those days and the message was clear — women should submit to her husbands in important decisions regarding the children. I looked my husband in the eyes. “Not the mama, dude. Not the mama.” My message was clear.
Don’t make me choose because you will not like my choice.
Not the mama.
When I first became a mother, when I first heard my son’s indignant cry, I changed on a molecular level. I held his long, skinny, plucked-too-green self and promised him the damn world. When I gave birth to my daughter a scant fifteen months later, I may have been older and more exhausted, but I was no less determined and I promised her the same thing. All my love, tenderness and intelligence would go into raising them perfectly.
Of course, I failed.
There’s no such thing as raising a child perfectly, no formula that you can put together that will create the perfect life and turn out perfect pans of gingerbread children. That didn’t stop me from trying, though. If they showed the slightest bit of interest in something, I bought them lessons, equipment and drove them to hell and back. If I felt they were lacking in some skill, I got them a tutor. I threw Halloween and Christmas parties for them and their friends and once even sanctioned a food fight in our living room. Of course, I stayed home with them, consigning their father to hours of overtime to pay for skating lessons and math tutoring and summer camps.
Maybe I overdid motherhood the way I overdo everything, but you can’t say I didn’t give it my all. Nothing against my own parents, but not a lot of forethought was put into my upbringing — I was left to my own devices most of the time. For better or worse, my own children were rarely left to their own devices. Like I said, motherhood changed me on a molecular level and they had my unwavering and undying allegiance. My worst fear was that I would completely screw it up. These two human beings were counting on me to do it right and I had no clue as to what I was supposed to do.
So, I faked it.
The three of us formed an unbreakable triad. We adventured. We used code words. We fought. We laughed. Though my husband was very involved in their lives and often included in our secret world when he had time, it was mostly just my children and I because he worked all the time. Not the mama.
The world is unbearably hard on mothers. We are idealized and revered and hated and blamed. If a child doesn’t turn out, it must be something the mother did. She was too hard on them, she was too soft on them, she spanked them she didn’t spank them, she let them eat McDonalds, she wouldn’t allow them to have sugar, she was overprotective, she wasn’t protective enough. Even other women judge their fellow mothers as if putting another woman’s mothering skills down makes them feel better about themselves. I was once accused of being both overprotective and not protective enough in the same month. No wonder I shared so little of my mothering insecurities. No wonder I didn’t ask for help during the times I desperately needed it. No wonder I didn’t admit my mom mistakes.
No wonder women, both stay at home moms and work outside the home moms, feel so isolated. Why has our society made it so incredibly difficult to be a mother? Yes, I realize that there are some women who should not be mothers, whose own trauma is so destructive that they cannot possible nurture anyone else until their own wounds are healed. But overall, we judge mothers far too harshly.
As you can imagine, letting go of my children is an ongoing process, even though my son is married now and has children of his own, even though my daughter has her own apartment and flies around the country for her job. The memories of our time together are the tenderest, truest part of me. I keep my regrets hidden away in the soft underbelly of my soul, not daring to bring them out because the pain is unbearable.
Looking back, I realize that fear was second only to love in what motivated my hyper-motherhood. Fear that my children wouldn’t be good people and I would be judged. Whenever a young person is arrested for doing something cruel, my first thought is how heartrendingly horrible his mother must feel. Because the culture tells us that OBVIOUSLY, it was due to her failure as a mother. My son is 30 and I still want to help, smooth his path and be there for him. Same with my daughter. And yet, just saying that opens me up to censor as people will judge that statement and decide I was one of those over-diligent mothers that are now so despised for ruining a generation. Oh yeah? Screw you. Not the mama.
The reality is, humans are complicated and mothering is even more complicated. I know moms who will lay on a bed of hot coals for their adult children no matter what the circumstances — addiction, criminal history, narcissistic personality disorder, what have you… just like I know others who will judge them for that impulse. STOP IT. Not the mama.
I was a good mom, yet, as I have been taught to, I focus mostly my failures — that spot that’s still tender and sore like the empty space a tooth leaves after being extracted — a phantom pain that never really goes away. Would I do it differently? Many things. I’m smarter, more educated and have far more patience. Plus, I miss them, those smudged little faces, the sticky kisses, the trusting head on my shoulder. But my children and I both survived my incompetence and I was rewarded with grandchildren. Being a grandmother is all the joy of motherhood without the responsibility of being the end all and be all. I can lovingly and legitimately hand them back to my daughter-in-law when they’re being stinky and say thankfully, “Not the mama!”
Perhaps the greatest gift of being on the other side of motherhood, so to speak, has been learning not to judge other mothers. So to all the moms out there, the new moms, the old moms, the in-between moms, I love you. I see you. I know your pain and joy and doubt and resolve. Listen to your children, your mind, your instincts. Seek advice if you want and feel free to use it or not. Tell your children you’re sorry when you mess up. Love them and love yourself. And if anyone gives you any grief, just tell them,
“Not the mama!”