Every once in a while I am hit with a longing for something I know I shouldn’t expect. Things that I tell myself I am only buying into out of cultural pressure. Like children who dress neatly in good clothes, or for someone, say my husband, to surprise me and whisk me away for a weekend. Once many years ago, I was hit with an immediate and sudden need to be recognized, appreciated even, on a very specific day, for a very specific amount of time: Mother’s Day . Was it too much to ask for?
Our children were at the ages of 9, 11, 13, and 15. That little factoid right there should tell you something. Add an absent husband, an overwhelming spring calendar of fund raisers, endless carpooling, multiple sporting events, and you have a recipe for one depleted mama. Me. I was exhausted and ready to be honored. Ready for breakfast in bed and dishes done, for no bickering or slamming of doors. I wanted to open my eyes in the morning to an appreciation reflected back from my precious offspring. I wanted peace, and manners, and a kind of backseat Sunday where the kids automatically agreed to do whatever I wanted without complaint. Okay. I’ll just say it: I longed for the perfect Mother’s Day.
I figured I would kindly take the breakfast-in-bed part out of the equation and set up instead a brunch at a swishy restaurant with my best friend Margo and her family. Next, a hike in the Olympics, then dinner at home—cooked and cleaned up by the kids. It sounded good. Everyone knew the plan. I was hopeful.
I opened my eyes to the alarm, not the kind gaze of children. I poured a cup of coffee that I had made myself into a mug. Somehow I had forgotten how hard it was to wake teenagers on Sunday mornings. After several fruitless attempts I must admit that I ended up screaming at their sprawled bodies: ‘It’s my day, get it? GET it?! MY DAY! MOTHER’S DAY!! Get out of bed NOW.’ I slammed the door and spilled coffee down my bathrobe. I opened the door again. NOW! I screamed into the room and slammed the door again. That should wake them up.
It was not a good start.
Their manners were terrible at the restaurant. There was egg on faces and elbows on the table. There was slurping and slumping and sighing. I gave them my fiercest look and hissed general commands in their direction. My best friend’s two children were perfect. I am not kidding. Perfect. Table manners, eye contact, everything. “It’ll get better, Nanc,” Margo whispered as her Jesus children gathered to say good-bye to me and oh! Happy Mother’s Day!
It got worse. Everyone protested the very idea of the hike; they were sullen in the car and complained bitterly that someone’s elbow was digging into someone’s side. I gripped the steering wheel and was silent. Silence is my best weapon, mostly because I use it only in emergencies, when life is catastrophic, weirdly skewed. Mother- silence is scary territory: What is she thinking?. How can I fix it?
Not this time.
We lurched along the hike, cut it short and drove home. The kids stormed into the house, and asked what was for dinner. I looked at them for a long time, turned and walked upstairs, gently shut my bedroom door, threw myself on the bed, and cried.
Mother-tears are right up there next to Mother-silence. It rarely happens. What to do? What to DO?! I felt them think behind my closed door.
One by one the kids tiptoed inside and gingerly sat on the edge of the bed. They stared accusingly at each other and patted my back, murmuring of course they’ll make dinner. It’s Mother’s Day!
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ our daughter said, ‘The boys can fix it.’
She pulled me to my feet and we walked outside into a fine spring evening. I could hear the boys industriously banging pans and rummaging through the refrigerator. Jenna chatted hopefully as we walked and I gazed at our neighbors on their front porch. Dave was busily barbecuing, Fran was sitting on the porch swing gently swaying with her daughter, sipping a glass of wine. ‘Hello! Happy Mother’s Day!’ they cheerily called out. Ka-chink. Fran and Dave toasted each other and their perfect daughters. Their perfect lives. I waved half heartedly back and stared glumly ahead. I felt crippled. Jenna and I walked on for a spell then turned back. Everywhere I looked, neighbors were celebrating Mother’s day with laughter, animated conversations, and grilled meat. I limped home.
The kids tried, they really really tried to resurrect the day for me, but it was too late. I smiled weakly at their efforts. I told them it didn’t matter, we could celebrate Mother’s day any old day. Like next Sunday when Dad is home from Alaska.
My children were relieved. I went to bed.
Months later I ran into Fran in the grocery store and confessed my terrible envy at her life that day. Fran burst out laughing.
“Oh Nancy! I had just had a conflict with the girls and saw you walk by with Jenna and I thought to myself: I wish we were on a peaceful walk together like that. Then I looked over at the Johnston’s and there they were, celebrating their Mom’s newly earned law degree, so happy and connected. Laughing loudly, loving and working together on their outdoor dinner. You all were having the perfect Mother’s Day, not me.”
I have thought about that day often through the years. Not just because, in the end, these children of ours turned out to be loving young adults who, since that time, have granted me many pretty-close-to-perfect Mother’s days, but because the yearning for appreciation runs deep and dies hard within all of us. A friend once told me that the four A’s of healthy relationships are appreciation, attention, acceptance, and affection. I think those four words take us as close to love as we flawed humans can get. We long for them all. We need them all. Wife to husband, true friend to true friend, parent to child. When they are absent, we hunger for their return, when they are present, life feels pretty close to perfect. Peachy perfect. Even if their timing doesn’t always fall on Mother’s day.