In all of my memories, the kitchen is spotless. She is mopping the floors, soap bubbles swirling and eddying in a shallow bucket while talk radio keeps us company in the background. Talk radio seemed a cheerful companion then, more like a pep talk than a doomsday sermon, always giving thoughtful advice about investing in gold and where to get a warrantied vacuum. That small kitchen, the heart of our home, radiated with the scent of lemon and sugar and roast beef in the crock pot. I wipe the mirrors dutifully with Windex and a paper towel, watching my own reflection become blurry, streaky, clear.
It’s hard not to compare us, when I’m at the same task, 20 years later. While I clean the kitchen glass I’m disgusted by the feel of dried mud beneath my feet, caking from the aging floor and clinging to the bottoms of my heels. Coffee grounds seem to be steeping in every orifice; they sweat in the coffee machine, they clog in the sink, they lay soaked across the counters and strewn across the path to the garbage can. I wonder what my house smells like before feeling slightly relieved that I probably can’t detect its smell anymore. I wonder: did this ever happen to my mother?
Her life then never seems powered by coffee, and her energy levels are steady, smooth. She glides through motherhood with the finesse of some kind of domestic superhero. There is no tired grime that lives in the corners of her life. The most stress I think I ever saw her exude came in the form of a prolonged blink. She is as calm as a glacier, but somehow, I never felt cold.
My mom always made it look so easy. But now, I know that it wasn’t.
On the heaviest days: the ones fraught with hospital waiting rooms, and specialists, and blades and staples taken to her younger daughter’s body, I felt the weight. The day they broke both of Sarah’s legs to try to fix them. The day they stopped and restarted my sister’s heart to sew it up. The day they misjudged her anesthesia dose and she went limp in my mom’s arms. I am a witness, I remember.
And I was there for the setbacks, too. The potty-training that had to happen again and again. The teeth that grew rotten from medication and had to be removed. The tests that never came back with any answers. The mortality that loomed in the little details of our lives.
Sometimes I would wake up for the day and pad over the green shag carpet to find her and there she would be, asleep with her head on top of the Bible. There was always a prayer sheet next to her head, with a long list of other people on it. I would shake her by the shoulder, ask for buttered toast, thinking nothing of the limits of what one woman might have to bear.
I grew up knowing that there is no limit to what God might ask me to do for my children. And because of my mother, I am not afraid of that.
I didn’t have to think about it, even once, until my son was here and I noticed how differently mothering came to me. I don’t want to imply that it’s because she is superior, a champion of selflessness among other people’s mothers, but the truth is I believe that is the truth. Exploding diapers, ruined furniture, old clothes, and no sleep have never taken me by surprise. In fact, the hard moments are the ones that feel most comfortable. I can do this, I know. I can do it because she did this and more, and she made it look so easy all the time.
To erect boundaries on what my children might require of me seems a wasted energy. To consider myself a resource in limited supply would serve no purpose in this economy. To be needed, needed, needed is exhausting, I’ll admit, but it’s an identity that I delight in, that I welcome. This endless laundry, this barrage of entreaties, this flood of watered-down apple juice doesn’t make me fearful or intimidated, as some things do. It thrills me to think that I can try to be like her.
On my weaker days, I draw strength from the strength that she has. I can close my eyes and feel lifted up by her. I see her with my siblings, Sarah wearing her white eyelet dress and the tiny little headband with a single delicate pink rosette. I see her bargaining with me on what to put on for Sunday service, while she negotiates with a blowdryer and apply mascara at the same time --- diplomacy that could’ve resolved a missile crisis. I can see Ben, sunny and perfect, as we made up a stream of endless nicknames for our little man. I see her pressed skirts and the silk blouses that lined the closet, and I feel her chin against the top of my head as I sat in her lap as we watch your husband, buoyed by idealism and hope and God and her, living out an impossible dream.
It is always her, without assistance. Her, without complaint. Her, the small and lemon-scented center of an utterly unpredictable family life.
Was there a time she sank, strung out with responsibility, desperate with questions? Was there a moment when she didn’t know what she was doing? Were there ant baits and bill piles and weeks she didn’t take the garbage out? Was she saddled with guilt and worry, quieted by grief? Did motherhood ever become a performance that she wanted to stop putting on, if for only an hour or two?
She must have, and there must have been. But I really can’t recall.
I want her to know that when I think about her, she is her greatest hits. A collection of her best moments. Her batting average is 1.000 and her hair always looks good. My mind has frozen the cool water of her voice singing to me in the darkness of my little bedroom when you calmed me and kept me safe. I am not the aggregate of her shortcomings, though I know she must have had them. I am not the sum of the times she felt I was neglected or not protected or over-indulged. I am the complete and utter opposite of that, because of how strong she is. How strong she let God make her. Because she was willing to always be the anchor. Because she kept the light on for the storm that kept coming to her door. I know I can survive anything because she is standing, still.
When I was eight months pregnant, I fell down a staircase at Christmas and broke my wrist. My husband left the next day for a long work shift and I was alone for several days with a forty pound toddler that needed me to be here and to be whole. As hot water ran over my arm in the shower that first morning I let the tears take me. And then I called my mom.
She came, she wrapped my purple fingers and we laughed about how bad it looked. She made sure I ate something, because the pain was making me nauseous but the baby inside me needed me to eat, and after she left my son’s abundant energy felt like a blessing once again. He ran to me covered in orange marker and chocolate chips and demanded, “Carry me up!” I swung all of him into my arms without one wince. That’s how strength works. We have to earn it by being broken—but then we can share our strength with the people we love.
I cannot claim to be anything like my mom, in my mothering or in my more general life. My kitchen has been spotless maybe once (because she came over and cleaned it). I do know how to make her cookies and I do know how to be an anchor, and I’m grateful for that. When I talk to my friends that are sunk with the weight of their lives, and when I feel saddled down with the grief of what I cannot fathom; when I am overcome with the evil of this world or simply inexpressibly tired and so far from the finish line, I close my eyes. I let her strength carry me up. And if my boys look back and see a happy home and hear a cheerful voice and know that they were always safe in my love, it’s because of her. It’s because she made it look so easy.
Guest post written by Kate Watson. Kate is a writer and developmental editor living in New York City. She co-edits Upwrite Magazine, a digital publication that aims to cultivate hopeful content on the internet. When she's not advocating for authors, chasing children, or pitching publications, she is taking a deep breath and being incredibly grateful that this is what her life turned out to be. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.