- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

Right away when I answer the phone I can tell something’s wrong. “What’s the matter?” I ask my sister, taking a mental inventory of all the things that possibly could have happened. An asthma attack? A car accident? An overflowing washer?

Through tears and a horrible upper respiratory infection, she chokes on her words, “I’m a terrible mother.”

Oh. Just that. I sigh with relief.

“We’re all terrible mothers,” I say, “but why are you crying?”

“No, really.” She protests. By way of evidence, she offers up details of an emotional meltdown with her 4-year-old son. She tries to convince me why it’s her fault he’ll probably need therapy some day, all because she ran out of patience and raised her voice.

“You don’t understand,” she says. “My throat actually hurts, I yelled so loud.”

“Your throat hurts anyway,” I said. “Besides, by the time he decides to get therapy, he’ll be off your health insurance plan. Relax.”

Somehow, this isn’t comforting.

I decide some sisterly action is in order. She’s sick as a dog, and her husband is on the road for business, so I pop over to her house with the makings of chicken noodle soup and a bottle of wine (to sip while I’m cooking, of course).

Soon enough, she has tucked her children snugly into bed for the night, she’s under a blanket on the couch watching an old movie, and a vat of chicken soup chills in the fridge for the next day.

How any mom of three small children can hold it together while her husband travels and she nurses what sounds like pneumonia, I can’t imagine. I drive out of her neighborhood, reminded once again that, indeed, motherhood is hard.

Not that the tasks involved are all that hard. Let’s face it; you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to make endless loaves of peanut butter sandwiches or to wipe the crud that runs like a river from even the cutest pug nose.

Even the tough stuff isn’t too tough for a dedicated and determined mom — catching someone in a lie, for example, and then hammering home a life lesson on integrity, or comforting a high schooler who’s excluded from a party. Or worse, discovering that the party is in your basement.

No, the thing that makes motherhood so challenging is the notion that we’re supposed to be perfect and believing that if we mess up, someone’s psyche hangs in the balance.

Perhaps this idea comes from parenting experts — or from the fact that there even are such people as parenting experts. It used to be that when we had babies, we all chuckled about “kids not coming with directions.” That’s no longer true.

There are directions — mountains of them — from medical doctors, Ph.D.s, master-degreed social workers and even credential-less newspaper columnists, all pretending to be soothsayers on the perils our children face if we spank (or don’t spank), yell (or don’t yell), indulge (or overindulge).

Or perhaps, instead, the notion that motherhood can be perfected is a media myth. From June Cleaver to Carol Brady to Clair Huxtable, the TV moms we watched as girls oozed with maternal competence even on a bad day.

Tell me — was there ever an episode in which Carol Brady’s veins popped out of her neck and her eyes bugged from their sockets as she screamed at Marcia, “I don’t care if you have a date with Bobby Sherman, you’re not going anywhere until your room is clean”?

I didn’t think so.

It’s no wonder we moms have such high expectations for ourselves.

That call from my sister is typical — not just of her, but of me and countless women I know.

We all pick up the phone from time to time and wail to another mom, “I’m a terrible mother.” Then we unload as if in a confessional, waiting for the absolution that comes only when a peer — preferably a mom we view as more perfect than we could hope to be — conveys an even more brutal moment of maternal failure.

“You think you’re terrible? I just told my Charlie he’s never getting into law school and he may as well enjoy his life as a bum.”

We listen to stories like this one and think, “Ouch. Charlie’s only a kindergartner. You’re right — you are a terrible mother.”

Then we take a breath and realize, “Maybe I’m not so bad after all.”

Here’s the kicker, though. Despite the boundless love and unsurpassed patience we moms exhibit most days, I have never made or received a call saying, “Guess what. I just read ‘Good Night Moon’ for the 7,455th time, and I did it with the same soft, sweet voice I used the very first time I read that book.”

No one ever says, “I stayed up while my sophomore typed a term paper, just so she wouldn’t be the only one awake at midnight,” or, “I was busy and tired, but I stayed after soccer practice to help my son work on his shot.”

We don’t share the moments of motherhood when we know we have surpassed our own expectations of what it means to do a good job — a great job, even.

We should, though.

We ought to call a friend every now and then just to remind ourselves that occasionally we all achieve moments of sweet maternal perfection — moments that make the job of motherhood worth all our failed attempts.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to [email protected] comcast.net.

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