There’s this Harlan Coban book, The Woods, that I picked up once in a doctor’s office. Here’s a quote from the first chapter, written from the point of view of a young, widowed father:
My wife died five years ago, and I raise my daughter alone. There are other single parents in town, mostly divorced mothers, but I get a ton of slack. If I forget to write a note or pick up my daughter late or leave her lunch on the counter, the other mothers or the staff in the school office chip in and help. They think my male helplessness is cute. When a single mother does any of those things, she is neglectful and on the receiving end of the superior moms’ scorn.
I read that chapter two years ago, and I’ve never forgotten that passage. I think what resonates with me is how absolutely true-to-form it is.
Yesterday morning, when I dropped off my son at camp, there was a loud note left in all the parents’ mailboxes. You know how the loud notes go. All the words are in caps: YOU MUST APPLY SUNBLOCK TO YOUR CHILD EVERY MORNING. IT IS VERY HOT OUTSIDE AND ALL CHILDREN MUST HAVE A FULL WATER BOTTLE.
I do that. Nick has sunblock applied every morning and a Toy Story thermos full of ice water.
I said to the teacher, “I got the note. Let me know if he needs a bigger thermos.”
Because I’m a good mom.
She said she would. Then she started to gossip about the other moms. The bad moms. “I just couldn’t believe it. It was 97 degrees out yesterday, and half these kids didn’t have a water bottle. It was bike day! And no water bottle! And I know they didn’t have sunscreen on.”
I smiled, pleased that I’d had the required items. Pleased that I was the good mom.
Last week, on our way out the front door to our house, Nick insisted on carrying his full lunch box down the front steps. We have a brick front porch, and five brick steps. There’s a railing, but he likes to reinforce that he’s a big boy — only mere mortals use railings. Nick holds nothing as he stomps up and down steps. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the lunch box was too heavy for him, maybe he was looking at a butterfly and singing his ABCs and he couldn’t coordinate that with maneuvering down the steps.
Regardless, he fell.
It’s the first time he’s ever fallen down a flight of stairs, and of course there were five of them, and of course he fell from the top step. Of course he landed upside down, with his head on the concrete walkway and his legs going up the steps.
He’s a big boy. He got right up. Dusted off his knees.
Then he cried on my shoulder for a few minutes until he decided he was done and asked if we could sit in the car so he could eat his goldfish crackers.
When I dropped him off in the classroom, I explained to the teacher what had just happened. He seemed all right, but I asked her to call me if he wasn’t feeling well. I told her he fell down the steps because I let him carry his lunch box, and I was just out of reach so I couldn’t catch him.
She gave me a look. You know. The look. The look that said I’d failed as a mother, and she was bearing witness.
It’s a tough thing, being a mom. You have to be everything to everyone. Your child grunts and points at the counter and your husband doesn’t have a clue, but you don’t even have to be in the room to call out, “Hon! He wants the Cheez-its! No, the mozzarella ones!”
There’s no manual for this job. You just kind of do it on instinct. And you get really good at looking like you know what’s going on all the time. Your kid has blood gushing from his nose? In your head you’re freaking out, but in front of your kid, you’re saying, “Oh, sweetheart, it’s nothing. Here, mommy will kiss it and make it better. ‘Kay?”
But none of us mothers have a clue what the hell is really going on. We’re all completely insecure at our core. You know that mom who gets everything done right all the time? The one who brings beautiful cakes to the bake sale and stays up until 1am sewing costumes for her daughter’s ballet class, but also is the team mother for her son’s little league team, and manages to have a PhD and runs her own company and makes a six figure salary?
Yeah, she’s insecure, too.
And you know what happens when you’re insecure? You look for those weaker than you are. You look for those who are failing. It’s human nature. That’s why we look down on the “failing” mom. We’re so desperate to be the “good” mom. As long as we’re not doing what the bad mom does, we’re doing okay.
But that kind of sucks.
We should help the flailing moms. My sister-in-law was recently in the grocery store, and her daughter started falling out of the cart. My sister-in-law tried to catch her, which she did, but it was an awkward catch, and the cart was falling on its side while the poor kid was halfway tangled in it.
According to my sister-in-law, no one tried to help. Other moms were around. No one tried to help.
And that’s just wrong.
We all flail. We all have bad days. Yeah, we can take a second to feel good that it’s not us this time.
But then we should take another second to reach out and lend a hand.