I composed a letter to my adult daughter that I never planned to actually share with her, just something to help me make my way through my murky feelings, because I was weepy every time I was near her, rather than being supportive and helpful. What’s worse is that the emotions didn’t manifest as weepy but rather angry, so I know she must think I’m upset with her all the time–and I’m not. Not even close. I’m just emotional in general. I suspect that a good many working mothers have felt the way I do, and so I wanted to share this here. I am proud of being an independent woman, but I sometimes wonder what was the price I (and my children) had to pay…and, when I look long and hard at it or ponder it in the dark of night, I think I might know the answer.
It seems like you were born just last week. You were so tiny and fragile, helpless in this cold, cruel world, having undergone quite a trial just to get here. It was my job to spend the years that followed preparing you to survive, and I have failed.
I might not have told you all of this, but when you were born, I was in labor for close to twenty-four hours. I tore badly because of the way your birth was handled by the hospital staff, and for hours—minute by agonizing minute—I was literally praying for death. Take me, but let my baby live. As fate would have it, though, we both survived, and as I held you in my arms that late summer morning, I fell in love and felt immense gratitude that I was alive to hold you and continue to nourish you and help you grow.
You gave us a scare that first month, and within days, we were back in the hospital, and we feared that, at worst, you would die or, at best, you would live but suffer brain damage. Again, the heavens shone down upon us and you made it through that scare too, none the worse for wear.
It wasn’t long that we were home and I was trying to re-figure out my place and role in the world, because I felt a bit rudderless. When you were a month old, I had to return to work so I could pay the bills and support our tiny family, and your dad stayed home with you. It was important to us that one parent be home with you and, because of our circumstances at the time, your dad was the lucky one. Please know that I had always wished it could have been me, because I know I missed so much. Yes, it wasn’t long before I was watching you smile and giggle and I saw you through several firsts, but I also know I missed so much. I held you frequently, but it wasn’t the same as always being there, and I knew that deep down.
I’d vowed after giving birth to you that I wouldn’t have any more children, because I didn’t want to go through all that, but if you fail to plan…and, as you know, you were the oldest of four. You were the princess, though, because you are the only girl. How I loved putting you in pretty dresses and doing fun things with your hair. Truth be told, though, I felt more and more pressured, because I had a job outside the home and then came home and did housewife-y and mother-y things, and I felt like I couldn’t keep up with anything. You and your brothers were the ones who suffered. When I was home, I was cooking or cleaning, so I didn’t sit down to read with you as often as I should have. I didn’t play with you nearly enough. I didn’t praise you enough and I didn’t teach you the things you needed to know to survive. Did I show you how to do laundry and then make you do it over and over again until you were good at it, giving you feedback so that you’d improve? Did I have you helping in the kitchen and then have you practice the things I taught you? No…because I always felt like I had to hurry. And now all that time is gone and behind us and I hurried for what?
The last time I remember feeling like a really good mom was one moment when you were in the fifth grade. I was going to school for my MA at the time and working two jobs, but you had a huge school project, one that parents were supposed to help you with. It was a Renaissance assignment. Remember that? I picked up all the materials I thought we’d need and we spread that huge piece of paper on the kitchen floor and created a costume for that body outline, one that showed how much you’d learned about the elements of Renaissance dress. We spent hours on it, and I remember that one of my new white socks got black fabric paint on the bottom because I took a misstep, so every time I folded those socks afterward, I was reminded of that quality time we spent together.
There wasn’t just work getting in the way. Yes, I’d been going to school, hoping to make a better life for us…but there were other things that you know stopped me from being a good mom for you. As you know, one of your siblings presented a special challenge, and it was all consuming. You might not remember how I was always trying to find a way to make things better for our family, but I was pretty much stuck in my job by that point, because they were the only ones willing to work around our crazy life…but, to make things better, I worked more than one job most of the time so we could survive. You might not know it now, but it was paycheck to paycheck back then.
It still is.
So…the year you graduated high school and my book became a bestseller, I was convinced that I’d finally made it. If nothing else, I thought I could pay your way through school and you, unlike me, would have the opportunity to do whatever it was you wanted to do with your life. That year, I paid off one of my four student loans. I was able to pay to have your wisdom teeth pulled out so they’d stop bothering you. When the washing machine stopped working (again!), I bought a brand new washer/dryer combo—the first and only time I’ve ever bought brand-new major appliances, and now I’m praying they’ll last for years, because I won’t be able to do that again.
Because of that success, though, I was sure I was going to stay on top. Because I’d been gradually read by more and more people, I was convinced my star was going to stay bright in the sky.
It didn’t take long to fade, though.
But, at the time, I was ecstatic and enjoyed the fruits of my labor. I knew I was going to have to pay taxes that next year—the first time since before I’d had you and your brothers—and I sought tax advice. The accountant laughed when I asked if I could make quarterly tax payments, but she humored me just the same. And I even went to my first book signing.
And, for the first time ever, we had a family vacation. I’d remembered lots of good times with my mom and dad and sister back when we’d visit different places, so I planned a vacation for us—nothing extravagant—but I wanted to show you and your brothers different cool places in your home state. We even went to Four Corners so you kids could finally say you’d been in several states. But I also paid for you and your dad to visit your grandma and grandpa in Texas too, because I didn’t know the next opportunity you’d have to do it.
By the time you went to school that fall, my star was waning already, but you and I spent a little quality time together. You came with me to that first book signing and played my assistant. And then I sent you off to your destiny. You wanted to major in sciences, in part, I think, because that is what you thought your father and I expected. But we didn’t. We wanted you to go to school, yes, but for something you’d not only be successful at but enjoy. Well, you know how that turned out. And thanks to several mess ups, what little money I had left went to the school, money that could have paid for a good used car. But that tuition and my taxes that came due—in spite of the fact that I’d been making quarterly payments—totaled even more money than I had left, and I had to borrow against my work retirement, and that left you with a student loan of your own…a whopping huge one for a degree you decided not to pursue because your heart wasn’t in it.
And now? Now I see you working your butt off all the time so you can start your own life with your boyfriend. I feel so many regrets and I want to keep you home, hold you close to me, and tell you how much I love you. I want to tell you I’m sorry…sorry that I wasn’t able to help you get your driver’s license (although we came close); sorry that I wasn’t able to pay off your student loan for you; sorry that I was never able to teach you the proper way to keep house. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you to talk to about boys and life and bitchy girls. I’m sorry that time slipped away from us so quickly and now, here I am, sad that I never see you anymore. Sad that I was a shitty mother. I’d always hoped that, if nothing else, I was a good role model, but now I even doubt that…because, the past year or so, I’m working seventy hours a week just to make sure the bills are paid and there’s food on the table—and, when I’m home, I’m either dealing with your brothers or I’m writing, hoping to get back to where I was so maybe I can still help you get a good start in life.
I have no idea how you perceive me. I know I seem grumpy a lot and it’s because I sometimes feel beaten down by life. Maybe I also expect more from you that I shouldn’t…especially because I never taught you.
I guess at this point I just hope you know how very much I love you. I still remember holding helpless you in my arms, loving you, wanting to keep you safe, hoping you were happy…
My mind keeps drifting back. I recall when you went to kindergarten, and I had that helpless feeling that you were no longer constantly under my wing. But all those moments of letting go over the years didn’t prepare me for the emptiness I feel now.
I know I don’t tell you nearly enough, but please know that I am proud of the woman you have become. You are kind and thoughtful and smart and a hard worker–a beautiful soul in and out–and any shortcomings you may think you have are likely because you had a mother who didn’t show you how to do things. You are a beautiful soul. I regret that I never understood just how much those girls in school must have scarred you for you to doubt your beauty, and that’s another regret of mine—that I wasn’t around enough to pick up on the things I should have.
It’s not enough. It will never be enough, but please know that I love you. I will always love you and I want for you all the things I never had. I only wish I’d been able to give them to you, because you deserve them. Yes, my precious child, you deserve them.