Yesterday I reached an epiphany, an awareness about myself that was as startling as it was obvious – I am the polar opposite of June Cleaver. My hair is not set in any particular style. In fact, I am lucky if it sees a brush once a day. I do not clean house in dresses and heels. Actually, I rarely wear anything other than pajamas and bare feet. Pearls never drape around my neck. Only burp clothes caked with dried snot and baby food. My house, though tidy-ish, is not necessarily “company ready” at any given second. I usually require advanced notice of a day or two before someone “drops in.”
My meals, though the aim is nutrition, sometimes burn, sometimes fail and sometimes come out of a box. I’ve never made a roast anything. I’ve never been successful in getting my family to eat their peas. And, sadly, our dining table is a mere charade filling a void in a useless room. We eat our meals – all of our meals! – hunched over the coffee table, in front of our TV, just as I always vowed I would never do.
And that is just the surface stuff. My list of failures and low-points could trail on in a seemingly endless barrage of pathetic details. Episodes that would be funny were they not true.
Yesterday held one such example. During his afternoon nap, my nine-month old son managed to grab an almost empty lotion bottle from his changing table. I had no idea his small arms could reach so far – but they could, and they did! When he awoke and I got him out of his crib, I noticed the bottle in his possession. Then I realized he had apparently had his way with it and had (I assumed) eaten a small portion of the remaining lotion.
In a frenzy, I told my daughter to go play in her room while I did something for a moment. I didn’t want to tell her what was going on because I didn’t want to scare her. More honestly, though…I really just didn’t feel like answering her potential questions. (What happened? What are you doing? Why did he eat the lotion? What’s in lotion? What’s going to happen to him? Is he going to die? If he does, can I have his room?) So, I left her in her room, with my son in my arms, while I went to call Poison Control.
As I sat on the phone with a wonderfully calm professional, my daughter started to yell in the background. It wasn’t a cry for help, though. Instead, it was that all-too-familiar yell for “Momma!” In the background, it grew louder and louder, increasing in pace as much as in volume, with no feasible break in between for me to helpfully reply. As her screaming for me grew more and more desperate, my embarrassment grew with it. I imagined that the man on the phone from Poison Control thought we lived in a crazy house. All of that yelling. The sounds of an unhappy and restless baby. A mother asking, in frazzled tones, about her child eating lotion. By the end of it, I was almost certain that he had one finger on 911, just in case this picture turned ugly.
Sure, I wanted to attend to my daughter. But with no break in her screams, and my intention to make us seem decently normal for the man on the phone, I did the only sensible thing – I shut doors and burrowed further down the hall of our house, as far from the yelling as I could get. By this point, I had made my way into the laundry room, completely at the other end of the house. Any further, and I would have escaped through the back door. It was pathetic. But the worst part hadn’t even come yet.
After I got off of the phone (and after finding out that the lotion would not harm my son), I ran into my daughter’s room to see exactly why she had been yelling. She replied “Nothing. I just wanted to ask if we were going to have dinner soon.” Really?! The yelling, the banshee screams, the frantic shouting of my name while I was on the phone was for that?! THAT??? And that was the moment I lost my shit. Big time!
I lashed out at my six-year old baby girl. I growled at her in a voice so guttural that even a demon would have been scared. I shouted the worst, most horrible profanities that even a drunken sailor would swear were cruel. And, the anger, the overwhelmingly uncontrollable ire, just poured out of me like water from a broken dam. In that moment, as I delivered such a horrible display of parenting, I stood beside myself in angst, living an almost out-of-body experience. I knew it had all gone wrong right as it was unfolding, and yet I couldn’t stop any of it from happening. The tone, the words, the whole moment was something that had spilled out of me too easily. And it was a moment I could never take back.
She and I sat in silence in her room, unsure of how to proceed, for a few minutes following. Just awkward and hurt, disappointed and upset. And sad. We both shed many tears over the incident. We both made our apologies. We hugged and moved on with the day. But, even after we returned to smiles and happier times, I still couldn’t shake what had happened. And that was just one day. There were other times. Other things. My weaknesses, my impatience, my desire for control, my inflexibility – all of them, causing conflict, upset, discord, problems. It seemed a constant and recurrent theme.
And then June Cleaver appeared. On TV. There she was! “Leave it to Beaver” was on. Barbara Billingsley stood, reprising her famous character – the nurturing, loving mother. Buoyant. Chipper. Flexible. And endlessly patient. No. Matter. What. Though fictional, her representation of motherhood was one that I could recall from childhood, steadfastly holding it in my tiny mind as the ideal. The goal. The patron saint of matronly endeavors. So, after the defeat of the day, I did what came naturally. I said a little prayer to June:
Mrs. Cleaver, June, mother of all mothers, please help me to be wise like you.
Coif my head with gentility and open-mindedness.
Line my lips with a darker shade of self-control over my words.
Help me to stand tall in the heels of better judgment.
Give me the courage to wear a smile that bears true happiness behind it.
Lend me an apron to shield me from the messy nature of life.
And, endow me with pearls of wisdom that will get me through situations gracefully.
Though I will never be like you, please help me not to be so much like myself.
However, it took me a full day, when I finally wrote out the words of this little prayer, before it finally dawned on me – the difference between me and June is not that I’m a failure and she is not. The difference is that I am real person and she is not! If I had stylists making me beautiful, wardrobe artists dressing me up, set designers arranging my house, writers crafting my dialogue, and directors instructing me on how to act then perhaps I would have a picture perfect life, too. Our TV culture has done us in by the way of offering false realities for us to compare ourselves to. And I have bought into it, just as much as the next person.
Well…no more! Though I still love “Leave it to Beaver,” and though I still idolize how easy June Cleaver makes it look, I now realize that I should not compare myself to her any more than I would to Botticelli’s Venus or Michaelangelo’s David. Yes, I make mistakes. In fact, yesterday I made a big one. But, for every one of those moments I have hundreds of other more picturesque “good Mommy” moments that go unnoticed. Times like last week when my daughter and I made cookies together, laughing, licking wayward icing off our fingers. Or a few days ago, while I was holding both of them in my arms, reading them a story, spontaneously kissing their foreheads in between words. Or the airplane motions I have to make with my son’s spoon in order to coax another bite. Or the bandaged boo-boo’s I clean with the care of a surgeon. Or the love notes I pack in my daughter’s lunches. Or the countless games of Go Fish. Or hide-and-seek. Or peek-a-boo. Or listening to the same Barney song for the umpteen-millionth time! My love for them is everywhere. And my love for them is real. Because I’m a mom. Their mom!
Yes, I am the opposite of June Cleaver. Not because I’m a failure. But because I am real. I am what motherhood really looks like. And, barring a few exceptions, for the most part I’m pretty good at it. In my actions, even my worst ones, my children learn that a mother, like all people is a person who makes mistakes and gets back up, someone who is constantly analyzing, learning, trying to be better, though sometimes failing. A mother is also a person. And people have feelings. I am not so stoic that their bad behavior goes unnoticed. And I am not always so flexible to work around something that goes outside of my plans.
I’m trying. Every day I keep trying to be better. Every day I say a little prayer for improvement. However, from now on, those prayers will no longer be to fictional characters – and they will no longer be prayers to help me not be so much like myself. Instead, they will be prayers to help me to be my best self. When it’s all said and done, that is more the ideal, the goal of parenting, than any false image or TV reality.