“What am I doing? What am I doing with this? I don’t know what I am doing as a mother. I’m out of ideas, I just know it . . . I am all washed up. My children are doomed. And I’m not even 40. Now what?”
Twelve years ago, the Mom train rolled in to my station, and I have been singing “I-Think-I-Can” ever since.
What surprises me most about being a mother is how much I don’t feel like a mother.
When I was pregnant, I thought that some ethereal hormone would magically show up in my system and turn me into the mother that existed in my imagination. A mother with a firm countenance and gentle smile, always ready to tackle the conflicts of life with a plate of freshly-baked cookies. Suddenly, I would know how to style my hair to look respectable. My lapels would be starched, my pants ironed. This was the mother I believed I would become, once my uterus was activated with life. I was going to be the perfect mother. I just knew it.
None of this happened.
What actually happened was a rough pregnancy fueled by hives upon hives that lasted for a solid five months, followed by a swollen nether-region that was only comforted by the frozen infant diapers that clung to my mesh underwear, and every inch of hope that it wouldn’t look like that forever.
My new reality was sleeping when I could, eating like a horse, nursing with bleeding nipples, and ordering my husband to restock the lanolin, immediately. My new reality was planning days for me and my kids to learn, explore, and thoroughly enjoy this incredible life we had together.
Starching lapels and baking cookies weren’t even on the radar. Not after the Mom train rolled in.
The thing was, I thought the train that rolled in was the Mom train. In the beginning, I was so distracted by all the expectations I had for myself — who I wanted to be, what mother I was going to become, what child I was going to raise, and all the other things I thought would be on this train and Amazon-Primed to me overnight — that it took me a long time to realize that it actually wasn’t the Mom train that showed up on my doorstep.
It was my train.
With my name on it. And everything I was, and everything I had become, was on that train. The bold woman with a never-ending supply of opinions was on that train. The slightly overweight woman who looked amazing in a corset was on that train. The woman I became after five years of marriage, after a college degree, after holding my children in my arms and listening to their beautiful little stories about mermaids and dinosaurs, was the mother I had become.
I never received that ethereal hormone, or an instruction manual on what a lapel even looked like.
When my train rolled in, I already was the mother I had actually always wanted to be.
I was my children’s mother. And we were going to do amazing things together.
The other morning, I woke up with a Mary Poppins song stuck in my head. Really, for no good reason whatsoever. I haven’t watched Mary Poppins in years, although I have the whole darn thing memorized. Why wouldn’t I? Mary Poppins is what all mothers should be, right?
(Julie Andrews is the bomb. There is no denying that.)
So, my brain goes retro that morning, well before coffee, and puts the Nanny song that the children chanted, while kneeling on their studio-set living room rug, on repeat:
If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Rosy cheeks, no warts!
Play games, all sort
You must be kind, you must be witty
Very sweet and fairly pretty
Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets.
A little on the demanding side from the kids, if you ask me. Always cheery? Very sweet? Rosy cheeks?
Maybe this singing duet never saw their mother prep the house to host a birthday party with 25 guests, only to discover that the Pinterest cake would fail miserably and the trendy games would fall flat. That the brilliant idea of having Frozen-themed karaoke would also fail, because, unbeknownst to her, the other children aren’t allowed to watch TV. They don’t even know the songs that you have already heard 5 million times.
Not only is this mother out of ideas on how to save her daughter’s birthday at this point, but she spilled that spoonful of sugar, the one that can magically fix anything, on the cat.
Perhaps they had they never seen their mother after spending weeks prepping for a year of homeschooling and scouring the Internet for the best curriculum for each of her children, trying to figure out which math books to use for each child’s individual needs. Maybe they haven’t found their mother staring off into the distance, her hands still in the kitchen sink, while she worried about her son’s asthma this summer.
I don’t know if they ever wondered how their mother battled her own demons, who insisted she was completely inadequate — an outright impostor — after a playdate in a home with cream-colored carpets, zero screen time, and matching bento boxes lined up on the counter. A counter that doesn’t have jelly staining the edges, thanks to the toddler who has discovered how to make breakfast for herself before the crack of dawn.
Impostor Syndrome is the unwanted caboose on the train of motherhood. It is the trailing thoughts that give you the absurd ideas that you are a fraud. You suck at baking cookies. All of the decisions you have made for your family are wrong: Bottle instead of breast? Disposable diapers instead of cloth? Have you actually vaccinated your children? How is your marriage?
Who are you, anyway?
Impostor Syndrome makes us believe there is a Mom train. The Mom train doesn’t have mothers who have tattoos, or who homeschool, or who think iPads and Netflix are awesome. Somehow, this train defines us all, creating an expectation we can’t meet. It creates this ridiculous idea that there is something all mothers should become, and that anything less will destroy their children, their families, and themselves.
Rosy cheeks and cheery disposition, my butt.
The fact of the matter is . . . Mary Poppins wasn’t the mother.
She was the nanny. When her shift was over, she popped that magic umbrella of hers open and flew away.
Their mother, Mrs. Banks, was still there. She encouraged their father to interact with their children more lovingly. At the end of the story, she was the one holding her children’s hands as they walked home from their infamous kite-flying adventure, the one who got them into their pajamas and tucked them into bed. She was the one who, presumably, watched them sleep at night, grateful for every bump, scrape and hug she got to spend with them.
Mrs. Banks was not an impostor.
Mrs. Banks was mother. In her story, Mrs. Banks was involved in the suffragette movement to change the future for her children. Mrs. Banks had order in her house, and made sure her children were taken care of. Mrs. Banks never baked cookies to solve a crisis in the house, or even once picked up the iron. She was a strong woman who loved her family, and in the end she was a damn good mother.
Just like I am.
Just like you are.