Our kids were just little and we were in the thick of parenting some years ago, when my husband took me out to a restaurant to celebrate Mother’s Day.
The conversation, as conversations between parents do, turned early on to our children, and I began listing my worries.
The kind of worries that start filling your mind from the moment you have a child. Or, let’s be honest, from the moment you learn you’re expecting a child. Or, all right, from the time you even think about bringing a child into the world.
They’re the kind of worries that build with each year and every development, about how to teach one necessary skill or another, how to deal with one personality trait or another, how to try to keep going at top speed when sleepless nights and exhaustive needs sap both one’s strength and one’s emotional energy.
Are they doing OK? Are they growing physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually the way they need to grow? Are we doing it the right way? Will we survive?
My husband, as husbands do, responded to one of my recurring statements of inadequacy with something he probably considered fairly innocuous for a conversation in a restaurant:
“I think you’re a good mother,” he said, kind of off-hand, between bites.
And I, as women do, burst into tears.
This was not something I’d heard, or felt, or dared believe.
Because being a mother is not like being a gardener or being a painter or a builder or a pilot.
When you plant something in a good spot and water it, it stays there. And it likely grows when you care for it.
When you paint something the paint ends up right there where you swiped it. And when you’re driving, the car and everybody in it goes in the direction it is pointed.
Same in professions that entail flying airplanes, serving food in a restaurant, putting words on a computer, or any number of other products.
Not so parenting. Not so mothering.
There are so, so many things you have to figure out when you’re a mother. And a manual would only help if there was a different one for every child.
You can teach several children the same way and one might catch right on but one might need to see it written and one might pretend they didn’t hear you.
You can direct one child and have them follow, and another have them give up.
You can love a child but they might not choose to love back. Not when they’re teenagers anyway.
Teach, direct, love. The basics of parenting and the foundation for all those decisions about bedtimes that eventually become curfews, birthday parties that eventually become prom nights.
So how can you know if you’re a good mother?
If it’s because your kids don’t throw tantrums in stores when they’re 2 or pretend like they don’t know you when they’re 13, or tell you that you should have let them play football (take piano lessons, do gymnastics) when they’re grown, then nobody would qualify.
If it’s because you worry a lot and pray a lot and try different things for different kids and develop new skills like patience and doing five things at once and you find joy in even the littlest hug and the simplest kind word and you never give up, then more of us qualify.
“You just have to love them,” my husband would say and I wouldn’t break into tears because I had that down. “You can make lots of mistakes, but if you love them, it will be OK.”
His list is shorter than mine, but it’s pretty much what matters.