Once upon a time, there was a little girl who snuck into her mother’s bathroom to poke through a drawer of wonder. Lotions and make ups. Powders and perfumes. Treasures worth the risk taken tiptoeing down the long, barren hallway to a room her parents considered a protected sanctuary. She applied the powder to her arms, to her face, to her hands, unsure of where it was supposed to go but confident that it made her just as beautiful as her mother, for it was her mother she was trying to embody.
For she grew up knowing that her father believed her mother to the the most beautiful creature in the planet. The most exquisite human being in existence, in fact, and she wanted just a taste of that kind of magic. To stretch out into, and fill up, her mother’s shadow.
Once, only once, her father uttered the words, “I wish your mother would…” Her ears perked up and she raced into the room to find out what she trumped her mother in, begging her father to say it again. She hoped for something deep and personal, for some great character trait her father would praise her for. “He wishes Mom painted her toenails,” her younger brother whispered, and her face dropped into disappointment. Surely there was something remarkable about her besides the polish she applied to her feet.
It makes me sad to look back and realize how much of my self worth as a child and teen was based on measuring up to someone else. Honestly, I held onto my pedicure triumph for years. YEARS, people, thinking “at least there is something I do that is good enough.”
My parents were (are) loving, attentive parents. But I always felt, and work today to keep myself from feeling, that there was an element to their love that I had to earn. And though I don’t blame them one bit, I wonder whether there’s something they did to cause me feel this way. Maybe it is just a part of my personality, or unavoidable human nature. Perhaps it’s partly to blame on my birth order. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn I am the eldest of three.
Now that I’m a mother of two children myself, I see how I treat my girls differently, and not just because they are different people and different ages, and therefore need different things from me (That was a lot of “differents” all in once sentence. My English teacher would cringe). My oldest seems so much older since her little sister joined us, and I constantly catch myself pushing her to put her childish ways behind her, as if they are reserved solely for the baby. Some days I hypothetically ask her, “what are you? Five?” and it stops me in my tracks as I remember how small, fragile, and adorable 5-year-olds seemed to me before I had children of my own. It’s the curse of being the oldest – the added responsibility of paving the way, your parents using their experiences with you to better themselves for your successor.
As I write all this, I realize that my mindfulness gives me an advantage and that I don’t doubt my worth as a mother to BOTH of my girls because I know I truly am doing the best I can with the knowledge that I have at the time. I don’t expect to parent perfectly, nor do my children need me to. And though I look back at the moment when I learned my father’s worship of my mother knew no bounds – that he loved her in a way he would never love me – with continued envy, I know it has shaped me for the better.
My parents have been married for 36 years, and I see in my dad’s eyes that he feels the same way he did all those years ago. Nothing compares to my mother for him. And because he modeled that kind of marriage – one of unconditional love – I looked for the same in a spouse. I can’t compare my love for my husband to the love I have for my children. They are different kinds of love and can’t be measured with the same yardstick. But there IS something about my husband that grants him trump. After all, I chose him. We vowed to spend our lives together, and when our girls have grown and left us to begin lives of their own, we will still be stuck with each other’s company, hopefully for many years.
As far as comparing myself to my mother? I think I will always do that. She’s an amazing woman to emulate. But what I have discovered over the years is that she catches herself trying to emulate me as well. She sees in me the best of her, and even better. And that, besides being the greatest gift a parent can give a child, is what I couldn’t see all those years ago, when childhood placed a halo above my parents’ heads, blinding me to their humanity.
They were imperfect, too.