Donning My Mom Genes


I’m convinced I was born without the “mom gene.” My hypothesis is confirmed repeatedly whenever I am engaged in activities with my kids. For starters, I’ve never been one of those moms who comes prepared with Mary Poppins’ purse filled with everything but the kitchen sink. Instead, I’m the mom who shows up at a sporting event forgetting to bring sunscreen, snacks or drinks. Yep, you know who I am. I’m the one who lets my kids leave the house in the spring or fall without a sweatshirt and you see them shivering in the fetal position under my jacket as they sit on the sidelines or are at a gathering with friends. I’m also the mom whose eyes start rolling towards the back of her head when around other moms as they talk about recipes and sure-fire remedies for sore throats, poison ivy or engage in the popular topic of identifying lice. My brain cannot process information and I quickly fade away, taking cover in a safe mental space where children do not exist.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my kids tremendously and could not possibly be more grateful that I was blessed with my two boys. However, I have had to learn to accept that I did all this while suffering from a significant deficiency. Without question, I am typically an epic failure when it comes to the hard-core mom stuff. Sure, I can clip nails (although one of my early attempts landed my then 5-month old firstborn in the ER for stitches), clean wax out of the ears and dispense medicine. I have a first aid kit to tend to minor scrapes and cuts and can navigate my way around Neosporin. But, that’s all folks. That’s the end of the road. I don’t cook meals, I loathe the field trips and I am doomed if left to create a costume. Halloween gives me hives.

Over the years, after packing for more than my share of guilt trips, I have come to accept my lack of mad mom skills and have tried to stop beating myself up. Every trip to the playground used to leave me penitent when the other moms would pull ziplock bags out of their designer diaper bags filled with pretzels or goldfish crackers. I’ve now moved beyond the shame of each and every time I needed to borrow a wipe or a bandaid when one of my children skinned a knee or had ice cream dripping down their face, shirt, hands and legs. It was a quickly learned lesson that I would just never be that person. I’m not that mom. And, frankly, I am in awe of those women who can pull a stick of gum, a tissue, a tweezer or an assortment of other devices out of their bag and turn themselves into MacGyver. I just watch in wonder.

Of course, this does leave me with just a wee bit of insecurity. I can’t help but wonder if I’m not that mom, then what kind of mom am I? Am I just the one who spends all her time working and has missed out on all the milestones and accomplishments? How many more times will I rely upon Facebook to see photos of concerts, field trips or games? I’ve battled these questions for the past 14 years and cringe every time I hear another parent say when they meet me for the first time: “Oh, you’re _____’s mom!!  I wondered if he had one…” Really?

When my children were born, I didn’t really give much thought to what kind of mother I would be. The excitement of my first born’s arrival was surely coupled with typical first-parent worries but I simply assumed I would figure it out. I wasn’t the expectant mom with a birth plan (just get him out as painlessly as possible was my mantra) and I never wrote a manifesto for myself outlining the type of parent – or more specifically, the type of mom – I wanted to be. My main objective was always very clear – to love my kids and send them out into the world feeling confident and secure. If I was being truly honest with myself, I couldn’t guarantee that I had much more than that to offer. I had no real mommy role models because my own mother was deficient in her own ways and all the other moms I knew were glorified from afar and I didn’t get to see the true inner workings of how they pulled off what they did. I was never even sure that all those moms who were ever-present and running the PTA were, in fact, the best moms. The true test, of course, was how their kids turned out in the end and how the kids felt about their moms when all was said and done. Ultimately, while I hated when my own mother said this, I now know she was spot on  – you do the best that you can.

I joke about my obvious shortcomings with friends and they kindly remind me of all the good things I do for my kids. I talk with more seasoned moms who have seen the fruits of their labors with grown children and they reassure me that my children will be ok. And, there is no doubt for me that I am an incredibly loving and supportive parent and play a critical role in my sons’ lives. I just don’t fit the traditional Carol Brady or Harriet Nelson or whomever the most current ideal mom role model is. I don’t fit into any of those archetypes. Someone recently made a comment to me that my children follow the course I set for them and I thought long and hard about that because it seems unreal to me that I have set any course. Every morning I wake up and feel like I am winging in. I have no idea where the day will take me when it comes to my kids and I hope and I pray that I will have the right answers and the wisdom to guide them as they blaze their own trails. I have never dictated (nor has my husband) their journeys and have only encouraged the interests they have demonstrated a passion for. We set ground rules for behavior and have laid out our expectations as it relates to respect, hard work and honesty but, beyond that, the road has always been theirs to explore. I have loved my children with every ounce of my being and remind them frequently how much they are loved and supported. And I also remind them that if the requisite ingredients are not in the house, I might not be able to procure cookies, cupcakes or a last-minute cake. I simply don’t have those skills. I have taught them about responsibility and how to respect women. My very existence is evidence of what is possible for women who seek fulfillment both professionally and personally.

My sons are now a teenager and a tween and neither of them think those mad MacGyver skills are all that necessary any longer. My ability to drive and withdraw cash from my bank account ensure my superhero status in their lives. After all, my younger son proclaimed that MOM stands for Made Of Money. For me, however, I am still working on my cloak of invisibility during those recipe swap, illness remedy and homework discussions. I long for a day when I can feel equally proud of missing those games (because of what amazing things I might be doing when I am not there) as I feel when I manage to whip up a batch of brownies without having to make three trips to the grocery store. A girl can dream…


PJ-ORourke-580x580This weekend was one that we are all familiar with. It was time to clean out the closets (both literally and figuratively). I am not sure what it is about the warm weather and the onset of summer vacation that creates such an urge to purge. Surprisingly enough, it was kids who got the ball rolling this morning. After having friends over last night, they realized that their rooms were cluttered with too much junk, obscuring their treasured Nerf guns and clogging up the secret forts in each of their rooms. This morning I discovered both of my boys in their respective rooms creating piles of unwanted items – toys, books, clothes that no longer represented their quickly changing identities. My older son, moments away from turning 13 and bravely travailing the pathway of a teenager, had put aside a bin of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that had been stored in the back of his closet and secretly admitted to me that he had pulled them out and played with them this morning. “They were fun, mommy.”

I stood in his doorway, looking at the strewn items lying around his floor and glanced over at the trains, transported in a split second back to the days when he started building his vast collection. He was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, as many of his friends were, and he had a special affinity because he, too, was Thomas. The other boys, as their 2 and 3 year-old brains connected the dots that he was fortunate enough to share an identity with the sweet little blue train, often shrieked when Thomas was around, singing Thomas the Tank Engine songs to him. The images of him working away at his little train table which moved from our porch to the living room and finally making a home in his bedroom played a slideshow in my mind. There he was, all 3 feet tall, leaning over the table, his chubby little fingers struggling to connect the tracks with an intermittent cry out for help when his efforts proved fruitless. He loved his trains. His collection was immense. And, nearly 10 years later, he rediscovered them, not remembering his passion but acknowledging that they were special and should be saved.

That image seemed light years from the boy who sat around the backyard table last night with his friends and ours. I remarked to my friend who had come over for dinner that we had come full circle. Her 15 year-old son, a boy we have known since he was in preschool, was with us at the table as well and I recalled how it was just a few years ago that the kids wanted nothing to do with us and we could not get them to sit still to eat. And, it was just a few years before that when they were underfoot, pulling on our arms or legs asking to be cared for as we desperately struggled to have just a moment for ourselves. I imagined the children, as if in a stop-action photography image, going from toddlers to teens while disappearing and reappearing. Of course, their recent reappearance is far different from so many years ago. Last night, the boys all gathered around the table, shoving burgers and hot dogs into their quickly growing, fast-metabolizing bodies while taking photos to post to Instagram or listening a little too carefully to the adult conversations – suddenly very aware and understanding what we were discussing. I glanced around the table and imagined what the next 5 or 6 years would bring. Now, the boys were happy to sit and talk with us. They were having adult discussions, talking about other kids from school who were difficult to deal with and sharing their frustrations in hopes of garnering some support. They laughed at jokes in a wholehearted way that seemed unimaginable just last summer. They talked about girls they liked and gossiped about the dating scene in middle school. They were engaging in a mature and adult way.

I leaned back in my chair last night and just took it all in. There it happened again. Everything changed. No preparation. No heads up. No signals. No guidance. I was thrown, head-first, into the pool and it was sink or swim. I was holding my breath, recognizing that I had to come up for air as fast as I could before the water filled my lungs and I began to drown. This time, surprisingly, I was excited for the change. I found myself giddy at the anticipation of having children who could interact with us in a mature and sophisticated way. I loved listening to my son share his ideals and values (although he didn’t yet understand that he was actually doing that). I beamed with pride as I looked over at my husband. We did that. We helped to create this burgeoning adult.

Rather than being annoyed by having my son and his friends interrupt our adult dinner, I welcomed them into the discussion. We all engaged the kids, capitalizing on the opportunity to gather premium information that might not otherwise be available to us. Raising teenagers is a scary journey. There is more that you don’t know than you do know. It is virtually impossible to stay on top of them. Social media is all-consuming and, while it sometimes offers critical data to help give you small snapshots of their lives and psyches, it is hard to keep up with. Just when you think you’ve discovered all their online identities and have established monitoring systems to keep tabs, you realize they have moved on. The other day my friend summed it up. Facebook replaced MySpace. Instagram replaced Facebook. Something is out there replacing Instagram but we are not in touch enough to know what that is. Once upon a time we were able to put up gates to ensure that they could not fall down the stairs or we put latches on the cabinets so they could not obtain poisonous substances. We knew the dangers we needed to protect them from. There are no gates or latches to keep them safe. As parents, we are in dark caves, feeling our way around, hoping to find a ray of light to guide us.

I know I am lucky because my son has a strong sense of responsibility and inherently understands right from wrong. Of course, he is only 12 3/4 and has yet to truly experience all the dangers life has to offer an adolescent. But, with all of that, I have confidence that he will make some good decisions. And, I beam with pride when I look at him knowing that, as he enters one of the most difficult phases of his still young life, he has a lot of tools as his disposal – certainly many more than I ever had.

Now, as for the figurative cleaning out of the closets, I took a few minutes this morning, in between packing up clothes into bins and tossing out long outgrown toys that are not worthy of donation, and thought about my changing role as a parent. As I have been realizing for the past year or two, it is critically important to be present for our kids at this age. As much as I cherished our long-gone bedtime chats where I would lay in bed with each of my kids and read or talk about the random musings in their minds, I realize that their needs today are far more important. I know that I helped to create a foundation of trust and love with them during those times that I gave them my full attention and that helped to create our bonds today. And I know that they are paying much closer attention today, looking for me to read their subtle cues for guidance. The time I spend with them now is about building our relationship of the future. My presence in their lives during their teenage years will be the formulation of our adult relationship and will ensure that they feel close enough to me and trust me enough to have the really hard discussions. Our time together now is viewed through a much more critical lens – one that is ready to see me fail and prepared to remind me of it for years to come.

This afternoon, my son pulled out the Slip N Slide and set it up in the yard to get in some water fun with his brother and some friends. Several times he asked me if I would come out and play with them. I was still busy cleaning and doing some work and, after the third or fourth time when he said “Don’t you want to spend some quality time with your son having a good time?” I jumped up, put on my bathing suit and ran outside to make a fool of myself. I will, no doubt, be covered in bruises from the poor landings on the hard grass that my 45 year-old body handles much more poorly than his 12 year-old one does. But, he laughed and felt proud that his mom would come out and join in the fun. And that was the most important thing on earth today. Everything else could wait. I decided to shut out the rest of the world and just immerse myself in the space of my kids and, without any doubts, I knew that nothing else could be more meaningful, more valuable or bring me more joy. And now, as I sit here writing this, I am listening to both of my sons with their friends playing video games. Their voices are deeper than I remembered them being last summer and their discussions are far more complex. They are independent and mature. They walk through my house with their imposing statures – all athletes and growing fast and furiously. I am lapping it all up. Today, I recognize that all the other nonsense in my life is irrelevant. My children – growing and preparing to move on faster than I can keep up – are the only thing that matters in my life. When I am at the end of my life, I will not remember all the work I did or even the parties with friends. I will, however, be flanked by my family and will hopefully see that little boy with Thomas the Tank Engine trains who has passed them on to his own son. My joy, my bliss is right in those faces.

I certainly worry about my impact on my children and pray every day that they feel my love and know my commitment to their healthy development. I struggle with correcting the mistakes of my own parents and am consciously working to not pass along the dysfunction that marked my childhood. Without role models or handbooks, I trust that the immense love I feel for them will guide me along the right path. Earlier today, I got a sign that perhaps I am headed down the right path. After splashing around on the Slip N Slide, I went inside to do my daily check on some of his social media accounts and found that someone had asked him who his hero was and he responded – “My mom and dad.” OK, we got this.