Bad Mommy

October 10, 2007 at 12:44 pm (Uncategorized)

“Mommy, let’s go for a hike up the hill,” Andrew said yesterday. I wanted nothing more than to agree to his plan. It was a glorious day. The forest fires that plagued us all summer are finally extinguished, leaving the sky a clear, bottomless blue. The air was warm, but it carried an edge of cold in its breeze, almost like the tart aftertaste that balances a bite of sweet apple. The leaves have turned, and, in these few precious weeks before our first winter storm, our world is a riot of color. The Japanese maples in our backyard are a deep red, almost the color of congealed blood. Our box elder tree is bright yellow, and the maples are orange and red. Climbing up the trail behind our house wasn’t just a good idea. It sounded almost holy in its rightness. How else could Andrew and I pay homage to the beauty around us than to head out into it, join hands, and breathe deeply as we ascended through the vivid trees?

Instead what I said was, “I can’t.” And then I explained for what must have been the twentieth time that day that my foot is broken, that I have to wear this silly boot to protect it, and that I need to stay off the broken bone as much as possible. In other words, no hiking.

“Mommy, let’s play horsie,” Andrew said a little while later, indicating that he wanted me to crawl around on all fours, while he rode on my back and gently held the “reigns” of my long hair—all the while hollering, “Giddy up, Mommy.”

“I can’t,” I said. “That would hurt my foot.”

“Mommy, let’s dance,” Andrew proposed, later that morning, as we listened to a particularly toe-tapping zydeco mix on the stereo. After half-heartedly gimping around for a song or two, I sighed and said, “Andrew, I can’t. This hurts my foot.”

Perhaps I’m overstating somewhat, but it feels as though I tell my little three-year-old, “I can’t,” to nearly everything he envisions. If I somehow incorporated my new mantra of “I can’t” into a meditation practice, I’d be a guru of peace and well-being. Instead, I just keep telling Andrew “I can’t” and then hating myself for it.

It’s not just my broken foot that makes me feel like a bad mother. I simply don’t have the spunk and stamina I’d like to have as a parent. Before Andrew was born, Jay and I visualized the hikes and camping trips we would take together with our hypothetical baby. We planned potential trips and even talked of living abroad again before our then unnamed and unknown kid started school. It’s almost funny how far I have fallen from these original goals. I can’t imagine actively caring for Andrew for eight straight hours in a day (by actively I mean not resorting to a kiddie movie or some time in front of the computer together watching video footage of volcanoes erupting) much less moving to a distant land. I know part of my discomfort is a wholly natural part of adjusting to parenting. Every mother I know had vague and totally unrealistic plans for herself and her child before said child actually entered the world and sucked every last bit of energy (along with her general will to live) with it. But I do believe that my chronic sarcoidosis—and all the attendant problems its treatment has brought—have made me unable to carry out basic mothering tasks.

Jay and I—with help from Andrew’s grandmother in Boston—have been able to find Andrew high-quality, one-on-one childcare for the hours that I need to rest. He has thrived with Andrea, and he is a smart, funny, immensely verbal young boy. We’ve recently started him in a good pre-school. He has made new friends and seems to be learning something new every day. Because we needed a few extra hours of childcare, we enrolled him in the pre-school’s after-school program, which takes him on field trips around town, explores different parks, and has other planned (and fun) activities. I know rationally and reasonably that Jay and I are doing right by our son. We read him lots of books; we take him on trips; we don’t strike him; we feed him three home-cooked meals a day; he gets exercise; and, when we are unable to provide care for him ourselves (Jay because of work, me because I’m sick), we’ve found him the best babysitters and pre-school available.

Unfortunately, rational thoughts don’t hold sway with the heart, and I spend my spare moments gnawing at myself with guilt. Every time I drop him off at pre-school (especially for one of his longer days there), I get so guilty feeling that I have difficulty breathing as I drive away. “Do more. Do more. Do more,” the voice inside my head sternly admonishes me. And when I do more—by pulling him out of school early for extra one-on-one time with me—the voice simply sneers at my efforts. Yes, I spent three hours playing with him and reading to him, but I couldn’t take him to the park because of my foot. You call that being a good mom? Yes, we baked cookies together, but did we do something educational? Other mothers don’t have their kids in nearly as much daycare. And on. And on. I talk about my Mommy anxieties with Jay. I talk about my fears with friends. I am temporarily reassured, and then the yammering in my head starts up again. “Do more. Do more. Do more.” This guilt is corrosive. I can feel it eating away at me from the inside, sucking up what little energy I do have.

At least I know I’m not alone. I’ve learned that it doesn’t take getting a chronic illness at the same time as giving birth to your first child to qualify a mother for a gold medal in the Guilt Games. Nearly every mother I know is plagued with some form of anxiety about the childcare decisions she has made. Unfortunately, instead of owning up to this anxiety (no matter how irrational it might be), most women get defensive and unpleasant about the entire topic. The stay at home moms are sanctimonious. The working moms are equally so. Each faction claims their choice is the best one—for their kid, for everyone’s kids. I could tell these smart, capable, caring mothers that each of us is doing the best we can and cobbling together the best childcare arrangements for our kids and that there is no right answer to the question of how to raise a kid. But, I don’t. Because I know reason has nothing to do with their fears, or mine.

Jay’s advice is for me to enjoy the time I spend with Andrew, rather than clouding the moments I have with my son with worries that it’s not enough. Although I know he is right, I also think it is a lot easier for fathers to be more at ease with matters of childcare. Jay never stresses about the educational value of watching football with Andrew on a Sunday afternoon. I would. But in our culture, fathers get fawned over for any time they spend with the kids. It never fails to amaze me how much praise Jay gets for bringing Andrew to the farmer’s market or to soccer practice—tasks a mother does without notice, much less admiration. “You are so lucky,” I get told by other mothers. I know this, and I try to remain thankful to Jay for all that he does. I only wish I didn’t need this luck, that I could be the one up early on a Saturday with my son, that I could do all that I expect from myself.

If you’ve read some of my past entries on this blog, you’ll know that there is nothing I hate more than ignorant asses who tell me that I’ve gotten sick for a reason. Implicit in their view is a judgment that I brought this awful disease on myself. I will rail against this notion with every breath I have (and heap a curse on them that they’ll get a nasty disease with every other breath I have). However, my belief that I have been struck at random doesn’t mean that I don’t think I can learn from my illness. For instance, having sarcoidosis has magnified many of the quandaries of motherhood. I think I would have the same experiences and emotions if I were healthy. But having a chronic and potentially fatal disease makes me feel them more intensely and experience them more acutely. For example, being physically unable to walk with my son simply amps up the Richter scale of guilt that all mothers feel for not being able to do everything they wish they could with their child—whether because of work, because they’re losing their minds at home, or because they have other tasks.

On Friday I return to the orthopedic doctor. Unless my fractured foot miraculously heals in the next thirty-six hours (after eight weeks of stubborn unresponsiveness to treatment), I will limp out of his office with a cast on my leg. Along with the plaster, I’ll have new restrictions. Unfortunately, Andrew and Jay will share these limitations. There’s nothing I can do about that. I cannot knit my bones together. However, I can try to control the battery acid bath of guilt I’ve been washing myself with every day. I owe it to myself to recognize that, like mothers across the world, I am doing my damn best to raise my child without destroying myself. I owe it to my son to be an example of living well under pressure. I owe it to my husband to unknot the ball of anxiety I toss at him every day. After all, there are ways for us to be together in this. This weekend we could go for a drive up into the autumn-hued hills, up towards the limitless sky. Who says you have to walk to pay homage to this world?


  1. Nancy said,

    You have become the different, unique Mommy God gave to Andrew. Ask him to dance for both of you – what a treasure and a gift! Nan

  2. barb said,

    I remember and still experience my limitations with my daughter. I feel the pain of loss, mourning that is deep, that I’m not the one doing somersaults and bike riding with her. I don’t like waiting for the day when she has the age given perspective of the lessons she learned. I mourn with you, that Andrew will know he is the deeply, incredibly unique recipient of what you model and Who you show You can be, much later. It isn’t nearly as fun as dancing or hiking in the moment. I think though, that it is a gift that will last him long past his need to dance or hike. I think you give him the authentic, crap, sweat and all, You. Nope, no fun in the short run…and I mourn that with you because the short run is what feels so very good. But then I think of the many joys you have and do share with him. Way, way more than “good enough”. Ouch. In the long run, I am relieved that Andrew will be a person who, as an adult will, I’m pretty darn sure, be trustworthy and compassionate, creative and kind, sharp as a tack and honest..a lot like his Mom. And as a kid, he will find ways to stay connected with you and his yearning feet.

  3. Paul said,


    You are a great mom – you care so much you beat yourself up needlessly.

    Seriously I wrestle with exactly the same issues – I’m not the same dad for our youngest that I was for our elder 2 kids – I’m crankier, physically I can’t do anywhere as much but I try to put in place what I can to cover – My wife has to do a lot more of the physical and exercise stuff but we get there.

    We recently had two young boys come to live with us – they’ve come from a home where they had none of the hope that your Andrew and our kids have.

    This issue was one of the reasons I went away from the standard medical treat\ments to the less accepted path. I am much better than I was 8 months ago – nowhere near where I want to be but getting there.

    I apologise for a lack of eloquence today but I’m saying hang in there you are doing good


  4. Carol Schaake said,

    BECKY, You are giving Andrew an amazing childhood… books, words, nature, creativity, conversation, exercise, fresh air, healthy food, stories, hugs, specialness, understanding, compassion, travel, extended family, friends, sometimes hikes & water sports, observation, knowledge, etcetcetc.. In reality, you want to give him more. But, we all have limits and dream we “could do better”. John and I had 4 kids when I was 21 – 26. I completed my last college trimester after our first child was born and John earned his PhD when the youngest was 2 months old. It was a wonderful time. We had no money, John was a workaholic, & I raised the kids. Times were different. John felt obligated to work and succeed…to support his family…the father role of the time. I played with the kids, read, sang, shared, loved … but time only allowed so much. I was “healthy” tho’ exhausted; my life was our kids. I’d do it over (but insist John be more involved). I would spend every second educating, teaching music, soccer, and dance, improving IQs, introducing new words and ideas, arranging play dates, etcetcetc.. There wasn’t time for all that in the 60’s when our kids were young. We had no money for classes, training, camps. Guess what? The four grew to be great adults: loving, smart, happy, unique, appreciative of each others’ talents, supportive, live on both coasts, have had their share of sadness and joy, successes and failures. They’re our kids and best friends … and we didn’t give them everything we could have, but like you, we did our best.
    This is a long-winded diatribe on “we could all do more” … but if we care, love, and do our best to give our kids what they need, we’ve done what matters. You and Jay give Andrew more than most parents. Try to relax and just enjoy him and be there for him as you can. That’s what matters most.

    I’m waiting for your blog to become a book. I’d buy, and recommend it not only to other moms, or others with chronic diseases, but to anyone living in the “real world”. We all have our “limiters” … yours are unfair and make me mad … but we can learn from you. As for sharing the deepest, most personal feelings, I admire you. I share my pain with people I trust (like your Mom and Dad), and would write about it if I had your talent. Hang in there. You’re OK.

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