My defining moment as a mother came in 1994, when my son was 18 months old. I was standing in the cold, bare hallway of a hospital, listening to my child wail and scream from behind a closed door. He was getting a spinal tap and I swear the needle they were using was larger than he was. They wouldn’t let me in the room. It was 1am and I stood in the hallway, pacing and crying and listening. Suddenly the crying stopped. I panicked, thinking they had done something terrible to my child. I ran down the hallway and looked in the tiny window on the door. A nurse was holding my baby, soothing him, rocking him and singing to him. He was cradled in her arms, wearing nothing but a nappy and a scowl. As she rocked him, the scowl turned to a half grin and he fell asleep, his face pressed against her chest.
It was then I realised a number of things, mostly this; that I could not always make it all better. Sometimes, someone else besides mummy would be there for my kids, wiping their spills and putting band-aids on their knees.
Along the way?—?and I’ve been a parent for 23 years?—?I’ve learned many other things:
That this would not be the last time that I felt that sense of helplessness with one of my children. Motherhood is rife with helplessness. From infancy to adulthood, there are moments where you can only stand by as your children combat broken hearts, broken dreams and failed attempts. And all you can do is hug them and listen to them and know in your aching heart that they are learning how to cope.
That you feel every single things your kids feel. When they are getting a shot, you feel that pain in your arm. When they fall off their bike, you feel their scrapes. Your heart sinks after every missed free throw and strike out, after every break up and denied university application.
That you can only protect them so much. You can keep them from crossing busy streets and make them wear helmets and seat belts. You can get them immunisations and make sure they wear their hat when it’s cold out. You can protect them physically, but you cannot put a helmet or a seat belt on their hearts and souls. You can only hold their hand and offer them worn out cliches about time healing all wounds and let them learn lessons from their experiences?—?most importantly, the lesson that you will not always be able to protect them, save them or bail them out of trouble. That they will have to learn how to handle life on their own. And that’s much harder for you than it is for them because your instinct is to do for them, but the right thing is to let them do for themselves, even if they fail.
That no matter what, no matter what trouble they cause you, what backtalk they give you, you will love them fiercely and unconditionally and forever. That you will still walk into their bedroom at 1am just to make sure they are breathing, even when they are in their teens. And you will look at their faces and listen to their soft dreaming sighs and your heart will fill with smiles.
That there will be times, many times, when you hate being a mother. When you can’t make it all better and when there is too much whining and not enough cooperation and lost homework and messy rooms. I don’t think there’s a mother out there who hasn’t at least once said “Why did I do this?” It usually comes at a time when you are throwing your hands up in desperation, letting out that deep, resigned sigh that embodies your exhaustion, frustration, aggravation and worry. And that it’s perfectly ok to feel that way sometimes.