"I failed him, somehow. He is so selfish! He is careless and very unmotivated. He is so different from my daughter! He's not a bad kid, he is just not who I had imagined he might be, and we are not close at all," she said, "I went back to work when he was three years old. I was home full-time a little longer for my daughter, since she was older, and I think that made the difference."
Here she was, this mom in her late forties, beating herself up about her need to return to work 20 years ago, and feeling genuine guilt and remorse for a decision that she clearly had spent years telling herself had been the wrong thing to do.
"You know," I said, "there are no guarantees. I could be staying home the entire time with our kids, and have the same outcome one day. We all do our best, we all have lives that are different, and we have no crystal ball to know how one decision might effect our children's lives over another. It sounds simplistic, but all we can do is our best, and love them." Then I added, "Maybe you are discounting personality and gender in this. Maybe it has nothing to do with you at all, and everything to do with simply who he is."
"Hmmm...maybe. I don't think that way very often, I just tend to blame myself. It's impossible to know how your kids would turn out if you had done things differently, so I guess we don't give that any serious thought." she replied.
She sat quietly for a few minutes, digesting it all, then turned to me and asked, "Do you think you will have regrets? You have obviously given up everything to be home with your kids full-time. Do you see your kids headed in the right direction? Do you think you will be successful, or will you look back and say you wish you had done it all differently?"
Deep questions for a discount hair salon, and not at all what I expected on a Saturday morning waiting to receive a perm.
What could I say? How could I respond in a way that would encourage her, this woman who was obviously a caring, decent mom? The last thing she needed was yet another event in the Mom Olympics, where she could measure herself against one more Mom who did it differently. What might I offer her that could assure and comfort, rather than bring about more Mom Guilt?
Taking a moment to think about my response, I then looked at her and said, "I don't really know if I'll have regrets, because I am not done yet. Neither are you, actually. Every day provides us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with our children, and we are not done simply because they hit a certain age. God gives us ongoing opportunities with our children, just as we are offered by God regardless of our age." Learning over and touching her arm I added, "People change, and he is very young. Keep trying, keep talking, keep approaching him. Whether you know it or not, he is surely still watching you, he is learning from you every day. In our family, our story with our children is a long and complicated one, too long to go into right here, but I have no idea what their outcome might be. The only thing I am sure of, is that it will likely be very different than what I expect as I look at them right now."
The sound of her grandmother's voice chatting away with the hairdresser was able to be heard in the background, a tinkling little laugh that was bright and beautiful. Walmart cashiers were hustling at the checkout stands behind us, as we sat in mutual silence for a little bit. Here we were, two middle aged moms sitting side by side, immersed in our own thoughts about children we love, hopes we have for futures for them, replaying missed opportunities on a looped mental tape in our minds.
Our culture is sort of bi-polar about motherhood, and what it expects of us. On one hand, we are told we can have it all, we need to find our own independence and not rely on any man, we need to climb the corporate ladder to financial success and the admiration of our peers. On the other hand, we are viewed a neglectful moms if we are not home every afternoon with warm home baked cookies and an icy cold glass of milk awaiting our children as they dismount the school bus. We have a standard of perfection held up to us that is bound to do exactly what it did to this poor woman next to me, leaving us feeling inadequate no matter what we do. Breast feed or bottle fed, homeschool or public school, college or trade school, organic or Doritos, sports or drama...and the list goes on and on. We are judged over and over again for every single choice we make, and unlike men we can never escape it.
It leaves us so damaged, so willing to take on all responsibility for every single outcome, that we don't need anyone to put on the boxing gloves and pound on us in the ring...we do that all by ourselves, allowing the speed bag to repeatedly whack us in the face until we are bloodied and bruised beyond all recognition, until we no longer loon anything like the young mother who held her tiny little babe in her arms, so deeply, madly, passionately and protectively in love with this new life that we would give up anything to assure this little one's future is as wonderful as we can possibly make it.
She turned to me with a very kind smile and said, "I don't know why I said all of that to you, but I am glad I did. You must be a great mom. Thanks for listening to me, its just been a bad week, and I guess I am feeling a little like a failure."
I smiled back and said, "I understand more than you think I do, and I am glad our paths crossed this morning."
She got up and went to check on her grandma, who was just about finished, and carefully guided her out of the salon with a brief wave in my direction.
As I continued to wait for my turn, I wondered, will I have regrets? When all is said and done, what sort of relationship will I have with our children? Who will they become? Will Nurture or Nature win out? What mistakes have I made that will haunt me ten years from now? We have taken a very different path in raising our kids, and will continue to do so. Will we see those as wise decisions, or will we look back with heavy hearts and recognize we really screwed up?
I don't know, but I am grateful for each morning that comes when I can try anew. I am liking what I see thus far, but continue to hold my breath and will probably do so for years to come. After all, does any mom ever stop worrying? I do know that no matter what, I can look into each of their eyes and say for sure, "I love you, I always have and I always will. I did my best."
At some point, if I am wise I might have to accept that is all I can do. I hope the woman I met can find a way to come to that place in her heart as well.