I Take Full Responsibility For Everything Wrong With The World (A Mothers’ Day Reflection)

May 12, 2010 at 4:46 pm (Uncategorized)

Andrew got sent to the principal’s office two days in a row last week. He was, in the principal’s words, “using his hands instead of his words to express himself.” He shoved a fellow kindergartener in the lunch line one day, and during recess the next, he was playing roughly and wouldn’t stop tackling another kid when told to do so.

Here is what I thought after I got off the telephone with the principal: “My son is a thug.” Then: “It’s all my fault.”

I don’t think I’m the only mother who worries about the quality of my parenting skills. I know from the self-flagellating comments of my women friends with kids that the air is so thick with bad mommy vibes that it’s sometimes a challenge to find enough oxygen to breathe. It’s hard to be a mother in 2010 and not feel guilty about the job I’m doing. I don’t have much to add to the astute cultural critiques that writers like Judith Warner in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety or Susan Douglas in The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women have already produced. I know that for a variety of reasons—ranging from a political and cultural backlash against the feminist movement to economic insecurities to the rise of right-wing television pundits—women today are pummeled with guilt-provoking rhetoric about motherhood.

If you pay attention to the constant mixed messages women get, you’ll get a fine case of whiplash from the hard and fast serves coming at you from both sides of the net. You’re a bad mother if you work outside the home and put your kid in daycare because you are depriving him of maternal love. You’re a bad mother if you stay at home and don’t work because you’re depriving him of seeing you as an independent, equal parent. You’re a bad mother if you drive your kid around without proper safety seats and boosters—like Britney Spears. You’re a bad mother if you don’t spend your life driving your kid around everywhere in various carpools to school and after-school activities. You’re a bad mother if you don’t make your kid pick up his toys. You’re a bad mother if you make your kid pick up his toys. You’re a bad mother if you are too lenient. You’re a bad mother if you’re too strict or snap at your kid. You’re a bad mother if you push your kid too hard in sports. You’re a bad mother if you don’t push your kids in sports and teach them the valuable lessons of winning and losing. Dr. Laura shrieks that a mother must stay home. “Get to work,” Linda Hirshman ordered women in the American Prospect in 2006. You get the idea.

Several writers have turned to memoir or personal essays to explore the pitfalls and mixed messages of post-modern motherhood. Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace or the contributors to Kate Moses’ collection Because I Said So, have reinforced my belief that it’s damn confusing to know how to be a good mother, and that it’s a quick slide down a very slippery slope from pondering this question to winding up at the bottom of a hill of guilt, broken and bleeding.

I rode Andrew’s trips to the principal’s office to the bottom of that hill, and felt very tattered indeed. You know a bad mother by the sins of her child. A kid that pushes other kids on the playground, who spends his lunchtime with the principal getting lectured about appropriate boundaries, has a bad mother. Me. Then to make my tumble down this rocky slope of guilt and self-recrimination even more harrowing, I had to roll through the cactus patch of my sickness. I’m especially a bad mother because I have been sick for all of Andrew’s life. He was only three months old when I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. And he has grown up marking not only months on the calendar but treatments I have failed and organs attacked by the disease.

All these thoughts flashed through me—like electricity looking for the ground—in the few seconds that followed the phone ringing and the principal explaining why she was calling. Then, with a jolt that signaled the current had found its target, I almost doubled-over with that realization that my sickness was the source of his problems. My son is struggling and it is because I have traumatized him with my sickness. He is flailing, trying to make sense of why his mother is in bed so much, why she had to get chemotherapy, why people lower their voices when they talk about her illness. And he hasn’t had the help he’s needed in coming to terms with his grief at having half a mom instead of the whole one he’s entitled to because I’ve been laid up with and laid low by sarcoidosis.

“My husband and I should make an appointment to come in and discuss this with you as soon as possible,” I said to the principal.

“I’m not sure that’s really necessary,” she said. “I mean, you are always welcome to come in and talk at any time, but I wouldn’t blow this out of proportion,” she added.

I wonder if by blowing things out of proportion she meant my assumption that Andrew would wind up a serial killer or a meth addict—all because of me.

“The piece I’m not sure I have conveyed to you,” I said haltingly, and then, gaining speed, “is that Andrew has had a tough year. I’ve been getting chemo, and this has meant he’s had to see me really sick, and I’m not sure if this has really affected him, and he’s our only child so I’m not sure what kind of reaction is appropriate, and I don’t want this bad behavior to continue, and…”

The principal mercifully interjected, “I know about your health problems and treatment.” It turns out that Andrew’s teacher keeps the principal apprized of the home life of all her students. I felt blessedly relieved to be spared the chore of explaining sarcoidosis, chemo, and my uncertain prognosis.

“I’m really not overly-concerned about these two incidents,” she said. With these words, I took my first real breath in several seconds. Her voice was crisp, yet not unkind—the perfect voice for a principal. “And I wouldn’t necessarily connect these incidents with your illness,” she went on. “When Andrew and I spoke yesterday he told me how happy he is that you are done with chemo. He doesn’t strike me as upset about you at all.”

I felt cleaner and clearer than I have in months, as her words sunk in. Her interpretation delivered the sense of absolution that Confession had bestowed on me as a child. I am not rotten—diseased not only in my flesh but in my self—and I am not contaminating my beautiful boy. She went on talking in her lovely authoritative tone. I believed her assessment because of her years as a teacher and principal.

“Again, I wouldn’t make too much of these episodes,” the principal said. “This is typical behavior for young children—especially boys. It is a matter of Andrew needing to learn to use words instead of hands, as we say around here. From the day they start school, we emphasize that all students must communicate their feelings and desires, not push or hit.” She explained how the teachers distinguish between “tattling” and “important telling” and other communication tools they give students. Andrew’s pushing and wrestling episodes weren’t crimes against humanity, as I had thought, but rather a mostly good kid being bad in a fairly minor and usual way. I was relieved at her interpretation. And she liked my idea of extending “the consequences” for his poor behavior to home-life. She thought that taking away his privilege to spend any time on the computer (he has recently discovered the joys of Legos’ web site, which includes a few games and lots of flashy product placement) was an “appropriate consequence.”

Jay and I later decided that Andrew needed to make amends, or at least try to, as part of his lesson about proper communication. After shedding many tears and seriously dragging his feet, we went to the house of the girl he had pushed in the lunch line, and he apologized to her face-to-face. We felt fortunate that we are friends with her family, and that her mom didn’t make a big deal out of it. Then we made Andrew write an apology to the boy he had tackled. We were going to make him deliver the note, but he became tremendously overwrought. Maybe we wimped out on the punishment front, but we figured the note in itself sufficed—so I delivered it. Again, we are lucky that we are friends with this kid’s family, and that they were graceful about it all.

Once apologies had been made, Andrew had been routinely lectured, and we settled back into our normal routine (without computer time for the boy), I spent several days harshly judging myself for the first thought after the principal called—the one about Andrew becoming a thug. Why didn’t I believe in my son? Why is it that I’m always relieved when our friends, family, and acquaintances praise him for his excellent behavior after they’ve spent time with him? Why do I have so little faith in the young man he is becoming?

I realized that this new line of self-critique was my same old diatribe against myself, dressed up in new colors. The answer to these questions I directed at myself: because I’m a bad mother. You see, only a bad mother would so quickly assume the worst. I decided to cut myself a little slack. Andrew is our first child. I am still learning what is a serious offense in kindergarten and what is not. I am learning as we go along. I must use the wisdom of those—like Andrew’s principal—who have more experience than I do.

It probably will come as no surprise if I tell you that I spent most of Mothers’ Day feeling guilty—and like a bad mother. I was exhausted after having a severe reaction to Rituxin (one of the new infusion drugs I’m now taking) and from a busy Saturday with Andrew and Jay. I felt compelled to spend time with Andrew and Jay on Mothers’ Day, when what I really wanted as my reward for motherhood was to be left alone to take a long, uninterrupted nap. But instead, I responded to the commercial schlock about Mothers’ Day—gauzy notions of snuggling with my child and sniffing roses—rather than the pull of my own heart. I wanted time with Andrew, but also some time to myself.

It’s a sensible formula—I want time with Andrew, but also time to myself—and not just for Mothers’ Day. If I can remember to listen to myself, my husband, and my son, and ignore the barrage of mixed messages… If I can believe in myself and my kid… If I can remember I didn’t choose sickness, and that Andrew and I can both learn to be better people from the experience of my illness… If I can just lighten up… Careful, I’m edging towards that slope of guilt. A lot of us mothers—healthy and chronically ill—spend too much time on the edge of this hill. Let’s all back up an inch or two.

Happy Belated Mothers’ Day to all the great mothers I know.


  1. Sandra said,

    Why thank you! Happy belated Mother’s Day to you too.

  2. Sarah said,

    Exactly right, wonderful mom, take a couple of steps back.

    If I’ve learned anything through the past 11.5 years and two amazing boys, I’ve learned that they are not only resilient, they are absorbing much more of the good I give than the bad. I don’t for a second believe I am the perfect mother, or even a particularly good one, but just one moment of Jacob seeing me walk in the door, and the first thing out of his mouth is “how’s your head, mom?” (on the fourth day of my migraine) I realize he is who he is.

    As parents we encourage his sensitivity and charm, we encourage his increasing vocabulary and independence, and we discourage all the bad stuff – not working to his potential, etc… And that’s ALL we can do.

    Rebecca, you are so right that your illness is an opportunity for you and Andrew – and for all of us who know you – to see things differently, to be better people, and to learn and be reminded about the precious and unpredictable lives we have.
    Love you.

  3. Barb said,

    Well, here I thought all the world’s problems were MY fault..where did I go wrong with That one? Can we share? LOL. Rebecca, I’m so glad you listened to the principal and let Andrew’s village inform YOU, and that you moved aside long enough to consider different and less dire descriptions. I know you do a really good job, and bottom line, you love your kid and most days that Will be Enough. Happy Belated Mother’s Day to you too.

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