When I was eight, my mother sent me to my room for an entire day. I can’t remember my crime — only my certainty that my punishment outweighed it.
I remember the thud of my door as my mother pulled it closed, the wet of my pillow, drenched in snot and tears. I remember staring at my bedspread with its pattern of pink gardenias and hating them for their cheer.
This punishment wasn’t typical for my mother, a woman who wore soft sweaters and pastel lipstick, who had a light step and an even temper.
Yet, this incident stayed with me. For a while — especially during young adulthood, the most fraught time in our relationship — I sometimes reminded my mother of this day, holding it up as proof of her fallibility.
Remember the time you sent me to my room from morning until night? I’d say. What I really meant was: Remember the ways you’ve failed to be perfect for me?
I wish I’d had the perspective back then to point out the feats my mother performed daily to make me feel safe and whole. Thank you for reading everything I’ve ever written and scribbling encouragement in the margins, I might have said. Thank you for making me bowls of chocolate ice cream sprinkled with peanuts, and for rubbing my arm as you read me to sleep at night.
It would be years before I’d be able to communicate such things.
We learn early that our mother’s matter. Our father’s matter, too. But mothers are a different sort. Most of us walking the earth awakened to life inside our mother, and it’s possible we never quite leave her. Our hopes for what she might be for us are boundless.
When I gave birth to my own daughter, I turned these expectations inward. At first, it was easy to imagine that I would never fail her.
Every part of her being — the smooth hill of her belly, her parted lips with their tiny slips of breath — insisted that perfection was possible if only I remained up to the task. Not every woman, perhaps, was up to this task, but my God, I would be!
New to motherhood, I had the conviction and enthusiasm of a convert.
The hardest thing for me about motherhood — eleven years and two more children later — has been the gap between this desire and reality.
The truth is I’ve failed my children again and again. I’ve failed them with my impatience and my laziness, and with my habit of murmuring “That’s funny!” while they tell me stories I cannot bring myself to focus on.
I’ve failed them by rushing them past ant hills, past robins’ nests, for no purpose other than getting going. I’ve failed them by comparing them to other children. I’ve failed them by forcing their squirming torsos into car seats; by wrangling their flailing bodies up the stairs; by shouting at them, every so often, with a fury so unbridled it terrifies even me.
Most of us walking the earth awakened to life inside our mother, and it’s possible we never quite leave her.
During the sleepless nights, I can feel these failures coursing through my blood, thick and corrosive. Do I remind myself, in these regret-filled hours, of the months I nourished my children with nothing but milk from my breasts, or the hours I’ve spent soothing their fevered bodies?
Do I recall the songs I’ve sung them, the stories I’ve told them, the picture books I’ve read so many times I have them memorized? Do I reflect on the traditions I’ve created for them: the lighting of Shabbat candles on Fridays and the double-layer cookie cake on birthdays and the sharing of our days’ highs and lows before we turn out the lights.
I do not. In the depths of the incriminating night, I am only a monster.
Now, when I recall memories of my mother, it’s as if they’ve rotated ever so slightly, showing themselves from a different angle.
Is that a glimmer of devotion I see in her stern correction of my table manners? A flash of helplessness in her plundering my drawers to find hidden cigarettes?
When my mother sent me to my room from morning to dusk — something she’d never before done, and never would again — why had that day unfolded for her the way it did?
It was only recently that I thought to simply pick up the phone and ask her this directly.
Not only did she remember the punishment, but also the triggering event. “You kept sneaking into your brother’s room and going through his things,” she recalled. “I kept telling you not to, but you just kept doing it. I felt completely frustrated — the situation felt uncontrollable to me.”
“And that’s when you decided on a day in my room as a punishment?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “No! The punishment came from my anger. It was not at all a contemplative action.”
“Did you feel bad at all?” I asked. “Did you regret doing this to me?”
She was quiet for a moment as if trying to sink into memory. “I remember visiting you in your room a couple of times,” she said. “I can’t imagine I didn’t bring you meals!”
She paused, choosing her words carefully. “When you were born, Nicole, I was so thrilled. I wanted a daughter so badly. I remember making a pact with myself when we brought you home from the hospital: I am going to make sure that my daughter and I are close, no matter what.”
“But,” she went on, “if I could do it over again, there are so many things I’d do differently. I feel such regret that I wasn’t more available for you, more there for you. I never wanted to do anything wrong. But sometimes it just didn’t work out that way.”
As I listened to this story my mother had been telling herself for who knows how many years, a story laced with sadness and remorse, I felt its sting.
But not as her daughter, for the remote mother she described was not the same mother I knew. I felt it as a fellow mother, trained, like her, to see myself as lacking.
The phrase “mom guilt” is sometimes used to describe this feeling. Like many phenomena associated with “moms” and “mommies,” this term calls to mind a small, cute thing — pesky, but ultimately harmless. But behind this watered-down version of self-judgment often lies deep shame.
.Anyone who has felt shame knows its destructive powers, how easily it edges into rage.
And because there’s no acceptable space for mothers to direct this rage, it often gets directed at the very children we long so desperately to do well by — because they are there, because they are small, because they’ve been, goddammit, snooping once again through their brother’s things.
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As I pictured my mother’s aging shoulders against her pillows, her dog at her feet, I felt intensely the pain of her self-admonishment, because I knew it well.
“But, Mom,” I said. “Whatever you think you did or didn’t do, I’m okay. I mean, I’m far from perfect. But I’m good, you know? I turned out pretty okay!”
“Yes,” said my mother. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.” And then she laughed as if surprised by her own relief.
I felt this relief with her. I told my mother about my own maternal regrets, and how these gnaw at me. She listened without judgment, even though my children are her grandchildren — therefore, in her eyes, perfect —and I could see how the feelings I described might be unsettling to her.
We stayed on the phone for an hour — two mothers, and two daughters — traversing, together, the landscape of our imperfections.
Later that day, as I drove my kids home from camp, I turned up the radio and belted out Hall and Oates.
They rolled their eyes at my singing, but I’m also certain that part of them loved the corniness.
When we passed J.P. Licks, I surprised us all by pulling over. We ate our ice cream outside. The sun warmed the back of my neck as I wiped dribble off of my youngest’s chin and swallowed a spoonful of chocolate-chip mint, wondering at the small, surprising forms that progress can take.
I hope my children will remember this day: the sweetness, the sun, the singing. I hope they will hold on tight to it, and forgive me.
Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Hippocampus, among other publications. She writes often about the joys and trials of motherhood. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.