I’ve Been Comparing Myself to Other Mothers for as Long as I Can Recall
It’s the archetype I wished I had for myself when I was growing up
From the corner of her eye, my daughter watches me try to assemble the tiered white plastic trays we bought online. Her party begins in two hours and I can feel the sweat beading on my forehead.
“I’m going to get Dad,” she says.
“Hold on a second,” I say, glancing up at her, continuing to twist the very tiny screws in.
We seem to be missing a few washers but I keep assembling, determined to get this done, trying to keep my face neutral and appear confident when inside I’m anything but. The instructions are so simple but worry tugs at my stomach, I know there’s a chance I won’t be able to build these right and we’re running out of time.
I still need to make the cucumber sandwiches she’s envisioned for her Sweet Sixteen, set up the table, hang paper lanterns, and the most dreaded job: unfold the twelve decorative pink paper flowers she’s chosen for her backyard tea party. I personally try to avoid paper flowers when I decorate because they drive me bananas. They come flat like collapsible fans, pinched in the middle by a thin wire divider, and you have to pull up the tissue paper layer by painstaking layer, tease each flimsy sheet to the center until the wire in the middle disappears and they burst into blossoms.
I don’t have the patience.
Finally, the plastic tiers are assembled, albeit wobbly, and my daughter begins working on a flower. I pick one up even though it’s the last thing I want to do. The work is too quiet, too detailed for my cluttered, racing mind and I’m certain I’d rip each paper petal I touch long before it can transform into the peony it’s meant to be.
I look at the clock again and think we have to hurry. We should have — I should have — done this flower business last night on my own so I could hide my impatience and keep her special day calm.
I’ve been throwing her and her brother parties for years but there’s always been a part of me that worries the truth about me will come out: I don’t know how to do mom things. I don’t have that magic mom touch other women have because I had no model.
My mother made it to only one of my birthdays after I turned six and I have no memory of her ever preparing food or helping to decorate. My sister and I lived with my father and he let us host giant costume-birthday parties for our entire classes in our Flushing apartment — thirty kids crammed into our shabby living room snacking on bags of cheese puffs and pretzels, listening to a mixtape I worked on for days. Every party my sister and I had as kids were ones I put together — crooked streamers, a big “happy birthday” sign I drew in my wobbly lettering on the back of a cloth banner we repurposed from one my father brought home from work, an ice cream cake he let me pick out at Carvel.
Back then I was trying to create a childhood like those I saw on TV or that my classmates seemed to have. And since I became a mother sixteen years ago, I’ve been packing my son and daughter’s lunches, hosting their friends, taking care of the house, and throwing their celebrations almost as if my life depends on it. Like my mothering hung in the balance.
When the kids were younger, I’d set up the party the night before while they were sleeping. I wanted to do everything in private so my worries and need for control wouldn’t spill over and impact their big day. I’d bake the cake, set the table, frost the cake, scramble around arranging balloons, and hanging up streamers at all hours until it was perfect. Birthday after birthday my husband would urge me to bed, but as the years passed, he gave up. “I know you won’t listen to me,” he’d say, kissing me goodnight and leaving me to it.
I not only had a hard time staying present during parties but for lots of the small day-to-day parenting too. My mind darted from one thing to the next. I wanted to enjoy the moment but I think I subconsciously believed I was one mistake away from revealing I lacked the secret ingredient other mothers had. That innate ability to know how to cook and nurture, establish family traditions, and create a cozy home.
Looking back I realize I’ve been comparing myself to a phantom mom. The one I want to be and imagine other mothers are. The one I used to wish for myself when I was growing up.
I don’t know how to do mom things. I don’t have that magic mom touch other women have because I had no model.
It’s an hour before my daughter’s guests arrive and we’re at the dining room table now. She’s sitting with her feet propped up on my chair, her body angled toward mine. This is new, the two of us preparing for the party together instead of me insisting on handling everything alone in the middle of the night.
She already has her second flower done and is on to her third. I’m halfway through my first; it’s easier than I remember.
I wonder if she knows that I’ve worried whether I could pull mothering off. And that’s when I realize I’m doing it again, drifting out of our time together and thinking about what it means instead of staying put and connected to her.
I want to be quiet, to be present without jumping from one thing to the next. To give me and my kids that sense of calm I missed growing up.
I realize that planning and scheduling are like a second skin to me because they’ve helped me channel my fear; quiet the nervous talk that used to keep me company when I didn’t have the answers and the person I wanted most didn’t seem like she would ever return. The part of my mind that kept me company and filled the void where my mother was supposed to be.
That’s a very long time ago now and I don’t need to take up that space with anything but what my family and I have created. I am with my daughter, she is here with me and that’s all either of us need.
I slow the chatter. Allow myself a breath. Then another. She’s unfolding her flowers, I’m unfolding mine, and together they bloom under our fingertips.
Ronit Plank is a writer, teacher, and podcaster whose work has been featured in The Rumpus, The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, Writer’s Digest, The Washington Post, HuffPost, and Lilith among others. Her stories and essays have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net and she is author of When She Comes Back, a memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and their eventual reconciliation. Her short story collection Home Is A Made-Up Place won Hidden River Arts’ 2020 Eludia Award and will be published in 2022.