My mother said: “Women can have it all. We just can’t have it all at once.”
In her 89 years, my mother grew up on a homestead outside of Glendive with nine siblings, worked as a bookkeeper after her father died when she was 18, married a World War II prisoner of war, raised 10 children, ran her own business, bought and sold land, buried two sons, worked as a bookkeeper at my high school after retirement, and kept the faith throughout for the entire family.
I am in awe of her strength. She never once complained, she took on every challenge, and was a strong woman. But she never took the wrong turn into being a hard one.
True confession: I was lucky enough to be a stay-at-home mom for almost five years. During that time, I put our children in front of the dining room window every night to “watch for daddy” at precisely 5 p.m. and hoped like hell he wouldn’t be late.
When he died in 1994, those days were over. True confession: I still wish that I would have given that sweet man 15 minutes to go upstairs and have a few minutes to himself. As it was, he took the kids and they jumped on the bed while I took a deep breath and started dinner.
When I became the breadwinner, I began to understand what I called the head of household feeling. Let me just walk into the house and know that the reason I was away from you all day was worth it. Really worth it. Please, oh please, smile and tell me school was good. You learned something. You had a good day. That’s all I need. That would be enough. Instead, too often, we are greeted with “What’s for dinner?” “I have orchestra tonight,” “Can you help me with math?” “Did you remember to get me the calculator I need?”
True confession: I was the parent who leaned over in orchestra and said, “Hey can you take a picture of my son/daughter and email it to me? I forgot my camera again.” My daughter is painfully right when she says her baby book ends at 20 months. My son’s ends at 4 1⁄2. That is when their dad died and no one ever received a Christmas photo from us again. My kids are also right that we have only a few pictures of them, mostly from other people. I consistently forgot the camera, had a dead battery when I did remember it, or was out of film. I recently came across several rolls of film that had never been developed and thought, “Maybe it’s not too late to redeem myself.”
Over the years, though, I’ve come to accept that part of my parenting. I remember one of my kids being upset about something I had forgotten to pick up and all I could think was, “I’m sorry, I was busy keeping a roof over your head and food on the table.”
True confession: Around 11, my son complained about the way I had washed his clothes. My response was, “Come here and let me show you a little thing I like to call laundry.” And my daughter got shown the same thing around the same age. It became the norm in my family that the kids did their clothes; I did the sheets, towels and my things. It worked out fine and when they went to college and brought home huge bags of laundry, they didn’t even ask. They just started the washing machine.
Have we bought into the notion that we are responsible for everyone around us being happy or not happy? Are we putting the pressure on ourselves to make sure that everyone around is content? Is it even possible to accomplish it? When my daughter was home recently for a wedding, she asked if I had taken any pictures, and I said, “No, honey, that’s what good moms do; you got me.” And I’m OK with that. I will never be the mom who whips out a needle and thread to mend something as the kid walks out the door. I wasn’t the parent who stayed up until 3 a.m. doing a science project for my kids.
When my son was in second grade, he wanted to be in Cub Scouts with his friends. That was when I was introduced to Pinewood Derby, or as I like to call it, Single Mother Nightmare Derby. We’d follow the instructions: he’d work on the car himself; I’d just help with the tools. He’d sand it, paint it, put the wheels on it and be oh so proud. Then we’d walk into the gym next to a dad that was carefully holding what could only have been a professionally built Ferrari replica that gleamed like the real thing. The dad would hold it carefully above his kid’s head and say, “Now don’t touch this!” My son was eliminated in the first heat and sat crying quietly on the bleachers for the rest of the night. Of course I felt terrible, but could I have spared him this disappointment? Sure, by not allowing him to participate. Or telling him how unfair it was that his dad wasn’t living. Or complain that the other parents didn’t follow the rules. And none of those things would have changed the final outcome, life happens and sometimes it happens badly.
Ultimately, everyone has some good days, some bad days, and some days that are just there. Over the course of our lifetimes, we hope that we and our families have more good days than bad days. We hope that our children grow up to be productive, responsible, socially aware, honest, hard-working, but I’m guessing that mostly we just hope that they’ll be happy. Can we promise them that? Nope. Can we fix every problem during their first two decades so that they never learn to do it themselves? Sure, but how does that help them become happy adults? It seems to me they’re more likely to be unhappy because no one will be running ahead of them kicking boulders out of their way.
So it’s not just women who can have it all, just not all at once. It’s all of us. Now, in my early 50s, I’ve been single, been married, raised kids with and without a husband, and now go home most nights where no one is fighting, no one is upset, and no one is there. Some nights I miss the chaos. Some nights I don’t. That’s life. And I’m anxious to see what more of life I can have over the next 40 years.
This essay originally appeared in Mamalode's print magazine themed Perfection.