Last week I got sick with a nasty cold, and I wanted badly to check out of my life for a few days. There were things I should have done that I didn’t do, as happens when one is sick. The hardest thing about being sick, though, for me, as a mother, is letting down my kids. I got to thinking about this after I blew up at them one evening when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself and wanting to be the one cared for instead of the one who always has to do the caring. The incident itself was unremarkable, but for days afterward, I ruminated on our relationship to each other, on the roles of mother and child.
Mothering is more difficult than I ever imagined it would be before I became a mother. The first few weeks after my son was born, I remember being in a state of shock over the fact that I could not go anywhere ever again without either taking him with me or arranging for his care while I was gone. This should have been expected, but it was something I’d never contemplated previously. I had been a singular, independent being, then suddenly I was one half of a conjoined duo. Another being was completely dependent on me for survival. Yes, sure, I had help from my husband, who is a very hands-on dad, but that didn’t change the fact that primarily it was me who had the responsibility of making sure our son’s needs were met.
It is still me, the mother, that my now teen and preteen kids depend on. Nothing is right in the world if I do not listen to their stories, if I do not help them with their school projects, if I do not counsel them on their friendships. I am expected to provide them food and remind them to eat it. I am the one they need to take them shopping when they outgrow their clothes and shoes. I am the one who calls the right doctor and gets them the right medicine and holds them close no matter how contagious they are. My husband is still the hands-on dad he’s always been, but I am always the one my kids need above all others.
I am the mother, and mothers are supposed to care for their kids before anyone else, including themselves. I know that my kids love me, but I understand also that their love is based on my satisfying the need they have for a caring mother. Last week they knew I was sick, and I know they cared that I was sick, but that didn’t stop them from needing me to care for them. When I lashed out in protest, they experienced, for a brief moment, the despair of not having a mother who cared about their needs. Shortly thereafter, I apologized to them and, within a few hours, they had recovered from their brief despair and our relationship was back to normal. That was only possible because I have proven to them repeatedly, through our daily interactions, that I do care about their needs.
This is the natural order of life. I cannot ever expect my children to reciprocate my love in the exact way that I love them. I cannot ever expect them to put my needs above their own, because to do so would be a reversal of what our relationship to each other should be. When my kids are grown and have experienced the world on their own as adults, they might understand why I would suddenly lash out at them on a day when I felt in need of care myself. They might have compassion for the inner child in me who remains needy to this day because she never received unselfish mothering way back when. But even if they do, even when they are adults themselves, I know they will still need me to care for them in the way a mother should. They will always need me to be their advocate, to be on their side, to have their backs. I cannot ever expect them not to need me this way. This is my role as mother.
I am a mother, yet I have another role, as a child, in another aspect of my life. As a child, I still need my mother, as all children do. This is how I understand why it’s okay for my own children to love me in the selfish way that they do. If I were to stop caring for their needs in favor of my own, I would create in them an aching despair. When my child needs me, no matter how small the need, that need is real and important, and it is my responsibility and obligation to respond because I am the caregiver in our relationship. I cannot turn things around and require that my children take on the responsibility of giving care to me. That is not their role. It never will be.
Having someone need me all the time as my children do is at times exhausting. Some days it’s hard not to lose hold of who I am besides being a mother. Yet, I believe that being a mother is the most important work I do. And I recognize that my mother love is also a selfish love, because my children are a dream I had for myself that I chose to make come true. I indulge my mother love by giving first to them and what’s left to myself; in doing so, I satisfy the need I have to love someone completely, without expectation. My children owe me nothing for this love I give them. Someday not too far off they will leave me behind to go out into the world, and this, too, is the natural order of life.
I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #7 of 52.