It was a Monday morning during the first or second week of school; kindergarten and second grade this year. I know it was Monday because I had to contend with the hefty laundry bag full of classroom floor mats I washed over the weekend. I don’t do much in-class volunteering, so I fill most of the required parent volunteer hours for my kids’ school with the jobs I can do at home on my own time. I know it was the first or second week of school because my second grader was smack in the middle of a brief spell of throwing tantrums at school drop-off—the second year in a row he went through a spell like that (God I hope we don’t have to do that in third grade too).
The tantrum began that morning on the car ride to school. I think it was over a toy he wanted to bring to class, and the fact that neither the school rules nor I would allow it. I wondered to myself if I could have avoided the tantrum by not letting him bring it in the car in the first place, but motherhood never gives those secrets away. By the time we arrived at school and parked across the street, I knew I had lost the upper hand (if I ever had it to begin with). There is little sense in rationalizing with a seven year old, and the staggering amount of energy I was devoting to exactly that was surely a sign I had little-to-no influence over the situation at that point.
I think I sunk all the way to the threat of a spanking to get him to unbuckle his seatbelt and get out of the car, which he did with much drama and protest. I was out of threats to wage at that point, and we all knew it. I wasn’t going to spank my kid on the sidewalk in front of school, and I wasn’t going to call in sick to work and take him home, and if there were even any other options to consider at that point I was too flustered to think of them. He stomped his foot on the ground and folded his arms and tucked his chin down onto his chest.
“I am not going to school.”
“Oh yes you are.”
With that, I heaved the laundry bag of freshly washed floor mats over the already heavy purse strap on my left shoulder, squatted down, wrapped my right arm around my seven-year-old’s waist (backpack and all), and stood up.
“Hold onto my purse,” I instructed the five-year-old as I looked up and down the street. I felt my left shoulder drop at the added weight of my youngest’s tug, while my right leg withstood intermittent kicks from my oldest as I carried him across the street to campus.
I offered a terse smile and self-deprecating nod at the parents who stared at me, the mother-slash-sherpa hauling a flailing second grader and a hobo bag of laundry, with a kindergartener in tow, into an otherwise lovely Montessori charter school. I clenched my teeth and hoped the beads of sweat I felt forming under my shirt wouldn’t become visible. I avoided eye contact with everyone I passed as I made my way through the main campus breezeway towards my son’s classroom, unsure what would even transpire once we got there.
As one dad passed by, presumably having just easily dropped off his compliant child, he turned his head ever so slightly towards me in the fleeting moment in which we were almost shoulder-to-shoulder. I noticed it was my church pastor, whose daughter is a third grader at the same school, exactly at the moment I heard him whisper, “Super Mom.” Neither of us broke our stride; I had to replay the two second interaction over in my mind a few times to even piece together who he was and what he had said. By the time I made sense of it, it was too late to turn back and acknowledge him; the fact he never paused felt like proof he understood I was in no position to offer such an acknowledgement anyways.
“Super Mom?” I chalked it up as a genuine attempt at a nice gesture or a comforting consolation. He could see that I was near tears myself by that point, probably, and was too polite to simply ignore me like I was attempting to do to everyone in my vicinity.
No one who witnessed me in that moment, rationalizing and threatening and sweating and physically struggling to carry both the literal and figurative weight of it all, could have possibly thought there was anything super about my mothering.
I don’t remember how I got my son to go into his classroom that morning. I don’t remember which teacher or staff member said which perfect thing that somehow convinced him, but somehow he made it through the day, and I made it to work. All I remember is the tears escaped my eyes before I made it back into my car, despite my best efforts to hold them in, and I remember wondering what I was doing so wrong that my best efforts couldn’t actually make anything go right.
* * *
Last week, I walked into the women’s locker room at my gym to find a mom getting five first or second grade girls ready for the first swim practice of the season. They giggled and shrieked and tugged at their swimsuits as she tried to talk through the pre-practice checklist with them. Had they all gone to the bathroom? Did everyone have their goggles? Were the goggles adjusted to fit comfortably? Swim caps? Did everyone get sunscreen? And rub it all the way in?
One girl forgot her swim cap, another couldn’t find goggles. One swore she didn’t have to go to the bathroom, but she seemed a bit untrustworthy about it. Someone accidentally squirted out way too much sunscreen, and someone else bumped into her, sending the glob from her palm onto carpet. There was a momentary silence as the girls froze and waited for the mom’s reaction.
“Ok let’s get some Kleenex and clean that up,” she said in the forced calm of a mother who is working hard to keep it together. The girls resumed their giggling and watched her hastily scrape the sunscreen out of the locker room carpet.
One of the girls asked for a snack, which reminded the mom she left the snack bag in the car.
“Can I trust you guys alone in here for three minutes while I run to the car and grab it?” she asked the troupe. I couldn’t hear all of the responses, but someone’s response must have indicated that no, they could not actually be trusted, because the mom began to waiver about whether or not she could leave to fetch the snacks. Up til now only a silent observer, I poked head around the corner locker that stood between us and I said I could keep an eye on them for a minute.
“Are you sure?” she asked, relieved.
“Of course,” I insisted. As she hurried past me towards the door, I stuck up my hand for a high-five and she slapped her palm against mine without skipping a beat on her way by. “You’re doing great,” I assured her just as she exited my peripheral vision, and before the words were fully out of my mouth I heard the door swing open as she left.
Super mom, I thought to myself as I looked at the happy group of little swimmers, each with goggles that fit and a swim cap that was on properly and pasty sunscreened noses, completely ecstatic about spending an ordinary Monday afternoon with their best friends in a swimming pool. Because of her. Because she coordinated with their parents and picked them all up and had the right number of booster seats and seatbelts and an extra swim cap and spare goggles and snacks that may have been left in the car but they made it into the car in the first place, which was all that really mattered.
And then I remembered my church pastor on that Monday morning during the first or second week of school. I had completely forgotten about that interaction until that exact moment in the locker room.
It occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t just been offering up a nice gesture or comforting consolation that morning in the breezeway. Perhaps he had seen in me what I saw in Swim Practice Mom: Making it work amidst the struggle.
All I felt that morning last fall was the struggle. To calm my son’s tantrum, to fit in at school, to complete my parent volunteer hours, to not make a scene, to offer positive reinforcement, to not make empty threats, to keep it together.
What my pastor saw was a mom getting her kids to school, on her way to work, having used precious weekend hours for parent volunteering, with 50% of her kids behaving perfectly.
By the time Swim Practice Mom returned to the locker room the girls had forgotten about the snacks and were too excited to get in the pool to be hungry anymore. She nodded, defeated, and heaved the giant tote bag of towels and swim stuff over her shoulder, on top of the now useless snack bag. I wanted to stop her and tell her how I saw it all, how I saw her, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me, just like I didn’t believe my pastor.
But all of us were right. My tears were justified that morning, and so was my pastor’s compliment. Swim Practice Mom’s stress was warranted, and so was my awe.
So often we only feel the struggle. We lose sight of the fact that this is an inherently hard job, this work of raising children. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us that we’re actually doing a pretty decent job, even when we’re too mired in the hardship of it all to believe them. Sometimes the only thing we believe is the inner critic who whispers that it shouldn’t actually feel this hard, and that if we were doing a better job it wouldn’t be. And sometimes we get the gift of seeing in another parent what someone has perhaps seen in us, and the compliment on our tongue echos in our ears before we say it out loud, and for a fleeting moment, we believe.