Living Up to My (Stay-at-Home) Mother

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Mom teaching me the art of baking (licking the spoon).

How often do you clean your stovetop? I mean really clean it, to the point where someone walking into your house would wonder if you ever cook. Hardly ever? Yeah me either. But my mother does.

She has very high standards for home cleanliness. And I remember her asking me how often I cleaned my stove on one of her visits to see us after my first child was born. I think I replied with, “Well, I usually try and wipe it down after I cook something.” I’m sure she then went ahead and cleaned it for me. Just like she cleaned my microwave once while my husband and I were out with the baby and didn’t mention it to me.

When I called to thank her later upon discovering my sparkling microwave, she said, “Oh I thought maybe you wouldn’t notice.” Apparently this was supposed to be some kind of stealth cleaning move. But of course I noticed because of course my microwave was quite dirty beforehand so how could I not notice? I was torn between being thankful that she cleaned my microwave for me, and feeling resentful that she thought I was incapable of cleaning a microwave properly. Or at all.

Since becoming a mother, I often compare myself to my mother. Of course that’s inevitable, but you see, my mom is not only a really good mom, she is good at being a mom. As a stay-at-home mom, I remember her resenting the hell out of people who asked her why she didn’t “work”, as if taking care of three children under the age of five was not considered work.

She was damn good at this job. She took tremendous care of us, kept our house spotless, and prepared amazing home-cooked meals every night of the week. And I mean every night because I’m pretty sure I can count the number of times we went out to dinner during my childhood on one hand (only a slight exaggeration). I think Dad thought, “Why would I want to pay to go out to eat when my wife makes me wonderful dinners at home?” Which was true but not all that considerate of the fact that my mom needed a break occasionally.

After my first child, I wondered how she did it; after my second, I was pretty sure she had some kind of magic powers. I remember when I struggled to breastfeed my daughter, my mom said, “I don’t know what to tell you because it just really came easy for me”. Which was extra disheartening to me since I was trying so hard and felt like I was failing. But my mom wasn’t trying to rub it in. I think she honestly felt bad that she hadn’t had the same experience so she didn’t have advice to offer.

This is the point where my mom would tell me she doesn’t know how she did it and that she was always in awe of people who had more kids than her and made it work. So everyone is always living up to someone or comparing themselves to someone. But I can’t help it. My mom looms large. She is  smart, witty and very expressive.

Whenever anyone asked her how she was doing she’d answer, “Crazy as ever!” a response which as I kid I found horrifyingly embarrassing, but now I think it was just bad ass. I don’t have a unique response to the “how are you?” question. I can’t replicate four different accents that Tracey Ullman used during a sketch like my mom can. I know sometimes she wishes she’d pursued acting as a career. I hope she knows how much we appreciate that she was there with us when we were kids. That I truly do appreciate how difficult being a stay-at-home mom must have been. (I should note that as we got older, my mom frequently worked part-time at night which must have been even more difficult as it took away any downtime she might have had in the evenings). She took care of us physically, and most importantly, emotionally, encouraging us to pursue our dreams and carving us into the people we are today.

But as a mom who works outside the home, my first reaction to any criticism my mom levels at me, or to really any comment she makes that could notionally be tied to parenting, is to get defensive. I think it’s because of that guilt I feel that I’m not as good at this mom thing as she was/is. I don’t have time to prepare some of the detailed side dish recipes she sends me (the made from scratch broccoli cheddar soup was tasty but took me an hour and required me to purchase an immersion blender…which I’m sure I’ll use again someday…).

Lately she has frequently told me that I was not nearly as “difficult” as a two-year-old as my daughter is. I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment about my excellent behavior as a child, or a slam about my parenting. She sometimes follows this comment up with, “It must be the daycare”(slam). While I’m sure my daughter does engage in some negative behavior she’s witnessed other kids at daycare doing, I’m also sure that she is just a different child than I was. She’s her own person and she seems to be a bigger risk-taker than me. She’s challenging but she is also incredibly smart and kind.

I know my mom understands how much we love our daycare, but it’s just a different experience than she had raising us. Moms never stop being moms, and I know my mom feels bad that she can’t offer me advice on how to handle balancing home and career because she didn’t have the same experience. But she shouldn’t feel guilty that she can’t help me figure this out anymore than I should feel guilty about working outside the home. As moms (and dads) we need to cut ourselves some slack.

I’m sure I’ll never stop comparing myself to my mom. But that’s ok. I figure if I aim for her high standards, I’ll end up in a pretty good place. Now go ahead and call your mom while you clean your stovetop. 

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