I have never been good at gardening. I kept a plant alive for a few years, once, but then my black thumb prevailed and the plant shriveled away. Plants require the same things that people do, to some degree: water, sun, food, care. Overwatering drowns them. Not watering enough causes the leaves to brown and wither. Too much sun may burn it; not enough sun, and the plant will reach toward a light source to no avail until it gives up.
Motherhood feels kind of like that, sometimes. Like when my son was a baby and I worried about:
Every. Single. Thing.
Is he getting enough milk?
Can I feed him this kind of food?
Is he getting adequate sleep?
How do I help him stop crying?
Am I good mother?
There is no manual, unfortunately. Believe me, I read as many books as I could get my hands on, thinking that with enough knowledge I too could learn all the secrets to perfect parenting. I read and read and read and read until I realized that no one really knows what they’re doing and I burned all of the parenting books in a ritual bonfire.
(Not really. I gave them to the library with the idea that maybe other mothers could unlock the code that seemed to be elusive to me.)
As my son grew, it turned out that I could be a better parent than a gardener, but I still felt that I messed up over and over. Even my normally illogical, meandering brain patterns craved some kind of predictable patterns and I struggled to find my rhythm. The shame creeped into my head and I cried myself to sleep, mourning my imperfections.
If only I were more patient. More experienced. More like this mom or that mom.
Why is there not a motherhood genie to give us three wishes? They might be different day to day; for instance, we might just wish for a nap. Or 30 minutes of blissful quiet. Or for the tantrums to be replaced with smiles.
Maybe they'd look like this:
My first wish would be for us to forgive ourselves for all of the times we yelled too quickly. When we lost our patience recklessly. Disregarded their feelings callously. Tuned out and stared at them blankly. Brushed them off unfairly. Marginalized their fears. What if we could wish for absolution of guilt?
The second would surely be for grace for the unkind things we have said about other mothers (or even about ourselves). Why can't we have a do-over for any judgment we may have felt or expressed about motherhood before we had kids? Maybe with this with could bring the flash of recognition inside ourselves for the times we got it right or gave someone credit where credit is overdue.
More joy. Less self-doubt. More being in the moment. Less pressure on ourselves. More of the feeling that it's going to get better. More friends who understand. More focus on moms who need help. More recognition that the light in our kids' eyes is reflecting the love we give them that is not contingent on perfection.
I mean, seriously, a bouquet or a gift card to a spa would be much easier to procure than these three wishes.
We're so hard on ourselves as parents. When my son tells me that he messes up all the time, I respond with reassurance that I've never stopped making mistakes my whole life. I'll never, ever be perfect. Nobody can. No book teaches that. No amount of wishes can fix that.
What we can do, however, is lift each other up and help each other see that we're still great moms. It only takes a minute to send a text to a fellow mother and tell her that she's doing great. A smile and nod on the street with a mama and her baby shows you understand all of the hard work that is behind her tired eyes. Drop off a plate of cookies, or a bouquet of flowers, or just a note that tells another mother that she inspires you.
People are like plants: Water. Feed. Love. It's in your power to help grant those wishes to another mother, even just for a moment or a day. Help them find forgiveness, grace, and joy.
My husband planted a small patio garden a month or so ago with basil, broccoli, cilantro, and rosemary. The basil had been replanted from a miniature kit I had purchased two years ago and it sat on my kitchen counter until the quarantine began. The tiny seeds somehow grew into a leafy two-inch representation of hope and my husband replanted it into our little garden. He had weeded it and watered it and it’s continuing to thrive; now I’ve taken over the watering and care of it and together, we’re coaxing the leaves to become something more.
Parenting is kind of like that, right? We hope and pray and try our best and sometimes, frankly, we stink at it. But underneath all that is the pull of love that overwhelms us with the all-encompassing nature of it. We feel small arms around our neck and soft kisses on our cheek and we forget, for a moment, that we are imperfect.
And that, mamas know, is the most perfect part.
Kristin Shaw is a writer based in Austin, Texas. For more of her writing, you can find her at KristinVShaw.com for parenting, music, and entertainment, and she's the co-host for DriveModeShow.com. Her essay and video "I can still pick him up, so I do" has been seen by millions of viewers on the TODAY Parents platform.