Being an Imperfect Mother on Mother’s Day

It's so thrilling when you capture a

I love this image of me and my son, the way it captures a seemingly perfect moment. But as with any photo, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

All weekend long I have been trying to put my finger on the difficult, poignant mix of feelings Mother’s Day is evoking in me this year. Yes, I am incredibly grateful to be a mom. I couldn’t imagine life without our boy. And I’ve never been closer to my own mom. In fact, I invent reasons to call her, almost every day, just to hear her voice.

But it wasn’t always that way. My mom and I have struggled over the years. And my son and I often struggle, for different reasons. In each case, we love each other deeply. That’s never the issue. But being a mother is hard, and needing a mother is hard, too.

It seems so simple. Just love each other. But it’s actually so much more complicated than that. We are human beings, and we love imperfectly. We hurt each other without meaning to, all the time. And with mothers, it’s so much more intense. Because all of us, deep down, long to be loved perfectly, especially by our mothers. And as a mother, I long to love perfectly, too. But it turns out that I can’t. (This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was.) It turns out that despite the burning love in my heart for my son, despite my sincerest efforts, I screw up constantly, all the time. And it kills me.

I guess the trouble I have with Mother’s Day is the way it seems to celebrate that myth of perfection. The way it puts pressure on all of us to live up to that myth. To feel like we need to be that kind of mother or to have that kind of mother. All the cards say, “You’re the best, Mom!” But the reality is so much messier than that.

I guess what I’d really like for Mother’s Day is some way to carve out more room for the mess. Permission to say, “You know what, guys? I feel like a failure a lot of the time. How about you?” And for someone else to tell me their truth. Like that rare moment when a friend of mine blurted out, with real anguish in her voice, “I thought I was going to be the cool, fun mom, but I’m not! I’m so bummed about that.”

I, too, had a vision of the kind of mom I wanted to be. The kind of mom, in fact, I was sure I would be. With my nieces and nephews, I was energetic and playful and fun and creative. I made them homemade gifts and played with them for hours on end. I thought, “I got this thing wired. I’m going to be so awesome when I’m a mom.”

But there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t factor in the 24/7 demands of motherhood. Or the effects of long-term fatigue. Or the need for discipline and limit-setting. Or the reality of difficult stages, or my child’s temperament and my own temperament. The fact that, despite the heart-shattering love, we might not be such an easy fit.

So, no, I’m not a perfect mother. I fall short of my own expectations on a daily basis. I get impatient and irritable and react when I wish I hadn’t. And even as I try to forgive myself, I find my small failures acutely painful. Not because I think they’re avoidable, necessarily, though I try all the time to do better. But because I still have that deep, inescapable wish. The wish to love my child as perfectly as he longs to be loved. As perfectly as we all long to be loved.

It would be easy to say, well, we all just need to forgive ourselves and each other for not being perfect. And I do believe that’s true. Though it sounds a lot easier than it is.

I think the real truth is a lot deeper than that. I think that imperfect mothering, whether of the ordinary or more dramatic variety, might actually be by design, cosmically speaking. Anyone who’s ever cared for an infant has a glimpse of that. Because no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to meet every single need in every single moment. No parent is superhuman. There’s always going to be a gap, a need left unmet.

I believe that gap is there for every child, every person, one way or another. It’s the gap between the love we want and the love we get. And although it’s painful, I believe that gap can be an engine that fuels our growth, driving us in the direction of our deepest longings. It sends us out in the world to seek more and better love. Finally, in the end, it sends us inward, to the only place we have a real chance of glimpsing the thing we actually wanted all along. Love with a capital “L.” Presence. God. Union. Home. Perfect love.

So that’s what I’m thinking about on Mother’s Day. My own imperfections. My very real pain at not quite being the mother I imagined I’d be. And my belief that failure, small and large, might point us and our loved ones toward something more.

It would sound like a huge rationalization if it didn’t feel so true. Take me and my mother. We’re very close now. She’s present now in a way she couldn’t be when I was young, empathic and generous to a fault. In our daily phone calls, she tells me she wishes she had been a better mother back then. It’s true, she was often stressed and depressed and distracted, struggling in an unhappy marriage, and that contributed to how deeply alone I felt as a child. But it’s also true that my aloneness fueled and shaped me. It drove me into therapy and writing. It led me to marriage and family and spirituality, all the things that sustain me.

I tell her the thing I know in my bones, the thing it has taken me so many years and tears to understand. “You were perfect for me, Mom. I learned exactly what I needed to become the person I am now.” It sounds corny, but it’s true. The gaps in our relationship are linked to the central discoveries of my life and my self.

I feel nothing but gratitude for my mother now. I’m so lucky she’s still alive, and that we’ve been able to journey so far together, now as equals. It gives me hope for my son and myself, that one day we will be able to talk about those days when it was harder, when the gap seemed so apparent and so painful.

One day he might even say to me, “You were perfect for me, Mom.” And it might even be true.