Confessions of an Imperfect Mother

I looked at my hands the other day and saw my mom’s hands.

There was a time when the realization that I was somehow like my mother would have caused me extreme discomfort. Now I marvel at it: I stretch out my fingers, turn over my palms, and see the direct reflection of my mother’s DNA so obviously in me.

Most of us remember a time when, to our way of thinking, our mothers were not people to be admired or emulated, but people to disdain and resist. As teenagers, many of us rebelled against her rules, her suggestions and advice, and even her attempts at conversation and affection. At some point, however, if we are very lucky and our moms were good ones, we realize how much respect and love we have for her. Such has been the experience of my life.

When I was young, my mother was the gatekeeper keeping me from all joy and every good thing in life. As I aged in both wisdom and experience, I began making the slow discovery that not all of those desired freedoms would have been good for me.

Mom was the schedule executor, meal planner, warden, psychologist, chauffeur, one to both judge and to grant immunity. She ruled over all with an iron fist gloved in velvet. Her backbone is made of the strongest steel, and yet she was the first to shed a tear in shared pain with the heartbreak experienced by a teenager in love.

A highly imperfect mother though? Sure, you bet. So am I. I’d be willing to lay a wager that your mother was and, if you are a mom, then you are, too.

One of my children accused me last week of being too hard when he was young. My first instinct? “Suck it up, buttercup.” My second? Thoughtful repose as my memories took me back over the years.

I remember grubby, fat fists bearing bouquets of dandelions. I remember the down of a toddler head against my cheek. I remember wiping tears away as a booboo was kissed and made better. I remember playing card games with rowdy teenagers, the conversation flying fast and furious. A curly-haired child bowed over his food, thanking God for His provision, a happy young child grinning furiously at me from a too-high perch in a tree, a victorious wave from first base, a contemplative girl with a half-ton beast following behind, bumping her rear with her head.

Oh, poignant! Oh, sweet! Oh, times gone like the whisper of the wind!

Do I also remember, then, times like those my son remembers of my being too hard? Of course. I was too hard, too tough, too impatient in a thousand different ways over thousands of days. I can also see, however, that the years may soften his judgment, as they have with my judgment of my own mother. Life and its experiences will teach him that sometimes there ought to be more mercy in his criticisms than rigor.

But how do we weigh the value of motherhood on our lives, on our person? That institution, created by a holy God in order to provide foundational strength and to assist in teaching His laws and to provide for the love and nurturing of our babies; the profession referred to by Erma Bombeck as “the second oldest”; the title many yearn to achieve and yet fail at day after day after day? Never has an office provoked so many feelings of failure, so much discouragement, so much questioning of our own abilities.

How, then, are we to judge our ways? How do we find praise for the imperfect souls who raised us? How do we teach our own daughters to be better mothers than we were?

It seems to this mother, this too-hard, too-impatient, too-exacting mother, that if our grown children still desire a relationship with us, that can be counted a success. If we receive a random text (“Hey, Mom, I miss you”), if a child calls to discuss a problem and get advice, if he wants to play a game with us on a Friday night with some of his friends, that all counts as a victory. If we hear similar values to the ones we hold most dear escape from their young lips? Success. There is no sweeter a moment in my life than realizing an adult child wishes to spend some of his time with me.

And what of mercy and forgiveness? Ought they not to play a role both in how we weigh the actions of our mothers, and in how we deal with our own children? From my life’s testimony, forgiveness was requested and granted both by me and for me, and the ensuing peace played a role in healing old scars and hurts.

It seems the apology-humility path might also teach our daughters to be wiser mothers themselves. If they can see an example of how to admit failure, might they not be quicker to reach for resources, to ask more questions, to look for guidance than we ourselves were?

As for me, I sat back recently and crossed my arms over my chest in great satisfaction when I heard an adult child of mine recite to another adult child of mine a line all my own that had been repeated to them since childhood. Inwardly, I laughed and thanked God for the chance and the ability to hear some effect of me on them. For when we see those reflections—the good or even just the humorous ones—imprinted from us on our offspring, those are moments of confirmation that not all our efforts were wasted or failures. In this way, more than any other, our “children rise up and call (us) blessed.”

About Jennifer Polk

Jennifer Polk is a writer and a mother of four living in South Carolina.

Photo: Ponomariova Maria/Getty Images

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