When Claire was a few hours old, and we were finally alone, I held her in my arms and lifted her tiny face right next to mine. I whispered all sorts of things to her about how I would always love her and how I was going to do anything to make her life the best one it could be. I also told her that I would not repeat the mistakes of my mother.
It was a silly thing to do, since she was an infant who didn’t even know that she had fingers and toes, and thus could not understand the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship. Plus, it wasn’t as though my mom was a bad parent; on the contrary, she had always been loving even when illness made her mentally and physically weak. But in that moment, I wanted just one thing for my daughter: to never suffer because of me and to never have pain that she could trace to me. I didn’t want to be a perfect mother, as I knew that was impossible, but I wanted to be a mother who always thought first about her daughter, before any of my own needs or wants.
New parenthood gives you all sorts of delusions, doesn’t it?
Of course, I made a million small mistakes in the early days (I thought it was just a little cough Claire had one night, but in the morning she was covered in vomit) and some bigger ones as well (like the time I forgot to snap in the car seat into place and drove for an hour!) I messed up and I messed up and I messed up. But I was trying, and I figured that counted for something. Anyway, none of my mistakes had been purposeful. I figured, if I planned and prepped and worked really hard, nothing truly bad could really happen. I could protect my daughter (and her brothers, once they arrived on the planet.)
But it didn’t work out that way, did it? And it didn’t work out for my mom, either.
I know my mom didn’t want to have depression. Her diary tells the story not just of how hard it was to live with depression, but how much she worried about the effect of her emotional state on her daughters. She knew we were suffering, and she knew that our suffering was because of her depression – even if much of it was beyond her control. She didn’t know how we grieved after she died, of course, but that was also a deep pain. It was something she didn’t want for us, I know that.
I thought I could protect my daughter from a similar pain, if only I tried hard enough. Even after Shawn died, I thought, “maybe she’s young enough, maybe she won’t hurt like I did. Maybe because he died from cancer, rather than suicide, it will be easier on her.”
But what I forgot was that my daughter was not living on her own, unaffected by others in the house. She was 8 years old, and she noticed everything. She saw me crying sometimes, but it wasn’t just the grief she saw. She also saw the way that grief changed who I was as a person.
I didn’t fully realize this until I started dating Chris, and he came to visit. Quickly, Claire could see how happy I was and how happy we were as a couple. She liked Chris, but in those early days when she was still getting used to his presence in our lives, she was hesitant about his role in our family. I thought she was just struggling with having a new male figure in the house, and that may have been part of it. But once I started talking to her, I realized her emotions were much more complicated.
“Chris can’t die,” she said to me one day, her brow furrowed. I went over and hugged her, thinking she was worried about having another adult she loved leave this world, and we talked about it for a while. But it wasn’t just that. “If he died,” she added, “then you would be so sad. You would just cry all day and you wouldn’t be able to take care of us. It would be scary. So he can’t die.”
I reassured her that Chris was healthy and not planning to die, which was of little comfort to a girl who has already lost a parent. But I also told her that I would always be her mother, and I would always take care of her no matter what. She looked at me skeptically. She remembered what it had been like.
She remembered when I was so grief-stricken that I wasn’t even close to being a good mother. When I was so tired I didn’t do much with her after school, and when I was so sad that I didn’t think her antics were funny. She remembered what it had been like when I wasn’t her normal, happy-go-lucky, at-least-somewhat-patient mother. Yes, we all grieved Shawn, Claire included, but she also suffered because she was worried about me.
Back then, I had a lot of support in my friends and family and especially my dad. But it was really hard, and I know that I broke my promise to her, the one where I said that she would not feel pain that she could trace to me. Because part of her pain in those early days was the worry she felt about me and the way grief had overtaken me.
Really, it was a hollow promise I had made to her back when she was a baby. Part of living imperfect lives in this imperfect world is messing up, even when we love each other. Maybe especially when we love each other.
My mom was a good mother, one who loved me dearly and wished the best for me. And though I want to caveat this next statement, I won’t:
I am a good mother, too.
Today, all around me, we celebrate moms. For me, this means missing my mom and remembering the good that she brought to my life. Today is also a day when my children celebrate me with their funny cards and flowers from the supermarket and a whole lot of hugs.
They celebrate me not because I am perfect, but because I am theirs.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.