My Mother Isn’t Perfect

No, there’s no “but she’s perfect to me” follow up to that statement.  It says what I want it to say.  Hallmark might disagree.

My mother isn’t perfect.

For a long time, I thought she was.  Or, rather, I thought I was supposed to be. 

When I was a kid, my mother seemed perfect. She did all the stuff perfect mothers are supposed to do:  she cooked for us and cared for us and brought us trays of soup and crackers in bed when we were sick.  She taught us how to set a table correctly and keep our napkins in our laps and our elbows off the table, so that we could eat in public without embarrassing ourselves.

We had great food when I was growing up.  Homemade bread, cookies, pies…fabulous feasts at the holidays, and she threw really dazzling dinner parties for her and my dad’s friends, and my sister and I got to sample the food early or devour leftovers (if there were any) the next day.

My mom took classes:  yoga, ceramics, decoupage, needlepoint.  Probably others, too.  Those are the ones that stand out.

She read to us.  I particularly remember her reading Kipling’s “Just So Stories” to us at bedtime.  Her voice was low and musical and soothing to my ears. 

She gardened.  Flowers and vegetables.  She bought all-natural peanutbutter.  She helped run my dad’s photography business and did the oil coloring on sepia-toned prints herself.  I remember watching.

She took us to ballet and tap classes…me to (one year of) flute lessons and my sister to seven years of piano.  I had painting lessons as well.  And we had riding lessons.  My mother loved horses, so her girls learned to ride.  Mother logic.

She froze and canned foods during the summer.  She tried new things – like bean curd – an experience that turned me off tofu for years, but looking back now, I think how cool it was that we didn’t just eat the same ol’ same ol’ every day.

As I got older, I didn’t see her flaws as much as I saw my own.  And, knowing, or fearing, that I could never be the gold and shining woman who gave birth to me, I threw the word “perfect” at her like a curse. 

“I’m not perfect!” I would holler in a pained, angry, bellowing calf kind of way.  The “like you are” was clearly implied.  She would look at me with equal parts pain and anger and incredulity, and tell me no one was asking me to be perfect, and that she wasn’t perfect either.

But of course, I was busy not listening.

More years pass and I learn that no, indeed, my mother isn’t perfect.

She is flawed.  She struggles with big things.  She fails.  Oh, yes, she fails. 

For a long time I thought I was supposed to fix things.  Fix her problems.  To find out what was wrong and simply point it out.  Bring it to light.  And that would make things better.  Like pulling a splinter out of an infected finger.  Yes, pain and oozing…but eventually there would be peace.

Life doesn’t work that way, does it?  No, it doesn’t.

Back when I was in my teens, she and I would have some huge loud fights.  We were the ones who argued, she and I.  We were the ones who yelled and fenced with words.

My father and my sister would quietly exit the room and leave us to our duel.

It was exhausting and, on some level, I think I loved it.  I think I loved the power of words and there was a thrill (for me) whenever I came up with just the right snotty thing to yell at her.  I could be horrible.

I think there was also, deep beneath all the shouting, the knowledge that no matter what we yelled at each other, we were still okay. 

One of us came up with the phrase “to air is human” – yes, a play on “to err is human, to forgive, divine.”  Our version was better – to argue and yell and cry to get our feelings out and express how we felt was human.  I made a little pillow filled with pine needles for her with “to air is human” stitched on the front.  The pillow was red.  I can still see it.  I wonder if she still has it.

Like I said, years go by…perfection peels and curls and falls away like latex paint on unprimed wood.  (I’m still reliving last summer’s paint-the-house adventure, apparently.)  And I am frustrated by this person who was the mother I felt the need to emulate.  The high standard I knew I could never reach.

I was angry with her for not still being up there.

On that pedestal.

Lots of rollercoaster years.  Lots.  Ups and downs, good and bad, happy and crushingly devastating. 

Yelling and tears and anger and more tears and not knowing what the hell to do or say anymore and maybe I should just distance myself and try to hang onto my sanity.

Oh, yes, my sanity.

Depression runs in families, along with lots of other things like stubbornness and blue eyes and the shape of hands.  I learned – in my more recent years – that if I stay on my antidepressant, the voices in my head (all mine, though they sound like different people at times) are quieter.  Or less believable.  If I stop taking the pills – because I’m “fine,” and because sometimes I feel that they strip away the fire and dull my brain a bit – I find myself, eventually and inevitably – in a deep, dark, ugly place thinking my family would be better off with my life insurance money than with me.  And, because I don’t want to screw that up too, in addition to EVERYTHING IN MY LIFE that I have already screwed up, I remind myself that insurance companies don’t pay out when it’s a suicide, so I can’t just do it quick.  I have to look for opportunities so that it will look like an accident.  This sort of planning and organizing keeps my mind occupied for a while sometimes, but eventually I just sink further down and come oh so close to absolutely not caring. 

But….I don’t want my family to see this.  I can’t explain what I’m feeling, this deep dark pit I find myself in.  So I don’t talk about it, really.  I don’t want my kids to be upset.  So I save the crying for after they’ve gone – my husband to work and my kids to school.  Then I can cry.  Because, you know, I’m a failure.

A few things – a few people, rather – drag me out of the pit.

My sister always knows.  Her first question when I start talking like this is “Are you taking your prozac?”  And of course I’m not, and she just has no time or tolerance for people who are being stupid like that.  She has seen enough.  Enough.  So stop being an idiot, Jayne, and refill your prescription.

She is the smack upside the head that I need sometimes.

But before that smack, I sometimes call my mother.  And I cry and cry on the phone and no matter what kind of an idiot I am, she tells me I’m not one.

And sometimes time fades into the background and I am five or seven and she is bringing me soup in bed and reading me a story.

I breathe a bit better, I believe her for the moment, and then I talk to my sister, get the verbal slap I need, and call CVS for my refill.

It’s not that simple, but I don’t want to type all day.

I’ve wished that I could be that person for my mother. 

I wanted to fix things.  Make it all better.  Speak and soothe and help.  I go back and forth between wanting her to seem perfect again, the way she did when I was a kid, to wanting her to always be at peace with herself and successfully battle her own demons.  I want, I guess, another something to look up to.

But no.

I’m fully grown.  I don’t need to be looking up.

Better to look directly at her, and see clearly.

My mother is not perfect.

She is loving and giving and generous and kind and she is the reason I cook and bake and garden and read and try new foods and freeze and can the bounty from our gardens.  Hers is the voice that comes through when I read to my kids or comfort them when they cry or tend them when they’re sick. 

I have also inherited or absorbed versions of her demons and fears.  I struggle with them the way she probably struggled with hers when I was a kid.  Privately.  So no one would see.  Or hear her cry in the shower.

My mother is not perfect.

And neither am I.

The revelation is that we don’t have to be.  It’s okay to be human.  Imperfect.  Flawed.  Ask for help when you need it, offer comfort or a slap upside the head when you’re not the one struggling.

Cry.  Yell.  Love.  Hug.  Care.

Perfection is overrated anyway.

Beauty, I think, and grace, are to be found in our flaws and our struggles, and in how we face them.  How we do battle when we need to. 

How we struggle to our feet when we’ve knocked ourselves down again. 

And again. 

And how we, painfully and bravely, use the last dregs of strength deep within to reach out for hands that will pull us up when we don’t think we can do it ourselves any more. 

And how, when we can, we reach down and pull the next person up.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. 

Thank you for not being perfect.

I couldn’t find a card that said all this, so I had to write it myself.

Mind how you go.

I love you.


15 thoughts on “My Mother Isn’t Perfect

  1. This is an incredibly beautiful post. Your mother might not be perfect, but she sure raised a wonderfully eloquent, thoughtful, honest, amazing daughter. I thought I came here for the recipes (and the occasional lizard story). Turns out I come to your site to read pieces like this. Or at least I do from here on out. Take care of yourself, eh?

  2. A dear friend of mine put an “I hear you” button on her blog for times like this. When there is nothing to say other than I hear you and I love you even if I don’t really know you.

    I hear you. Tick.

  3. Thanks so much for this post! I especially love the “to air is human” bit. My mom and I went through a long phase where we communicated via notes left under pillows because we just couldn’t deal with face-to-face confrontations.

  4. Thank you for this post! It really struck a chord with me this morning and I’m going to pass it on. Happy Mother’s Day to you and your blessed Mum.

  5. Heh, just came back to read through this again. This time I read some of the other comments since I was too overwhelmed to read through them the first time. Seems josordoni up there and I have linked minds this morning.

  6. I love your blog and as a mother of two I can’t fathom how you do it!! Your post brought tears…
    Your blog is such a source of courage and encouragement …. thank you for sharing!!
    Happy Mother’s Day!

  7. Jayne it was as if you were telling my life story. I especially identified with you “perfect” mother and your continued taking of antidepressants.

  8. I don’t know what to say other than thank you. Thank you for putting voice to some of the struggle with my own mother. Thank you for sharing!

  9. it’s a good thing to just be here to listen isn’t it? Sometimes more words just don’t say it right, but it is so right to tell someone that you were here, you listened, you care…


  10. Jayne…
    I was just about to type “But I thought YOU were the perfect one.” But, especially since typing removes tone of voice, I thought I should reconsider. Because that’s not exactly what I mean.

    I love visiting your blog, because you do all these things with your life that I dream about– you garden, you cook, beautifully, you make your own cheese, you build a home for your family that seems on these pages so much like what I picture sometimes when I daydream.

    And I’ve often wondered why you ever come by my place, where the rooms are a mess, but no more so than the weird bits of brain-workings I leave hanging out like dirty underwear I didn’t have time to toss in the closet.

    And then you write a post like this– where I see that we share not only mothers who love dinner parties, etiquette, and Kipling, but also the occasional run-in with minds that don’t always behave the way we want them to.

    It meant a lot to me to read this.
    It makes me feel hopeful.
    It makes me feel like maybe someday I could actually make my own cheese.

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