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When Maura was almost 3, we enrolled her in nursery school, three half-days a week. Even then, she was independent so we thought school would be good for her. Maura, however, didn’t exactly agree. Every time I dropped her off, she cried, grabbed my leg and begged me not to leave. Every time I dropped her off, I felt like I was abandoning my child. One morning, I walked into the school’s auditorium and called Joe. “I can’t do this anymore,” I said. “I’m taking her home.”

“Don’t. She’s fine.”

“But she’s still crying. I can hear her.”

“Wait. She isn’t crying because she’s hurt. She’s crying because she’s mad you’re leaving and she isn’t getting what she wants.”

Had you been in the auditorium, you would have seen the light bulb go off over my head. When I realized Maura wasn’t feeling abandoned by her awful mother, I felt comfortable leaving. It was okay for her to learn things wouldn’t always go her way.

Maura eventually stopped crying that year, only to begin again the following September when she started Pre-K. Her teacher would lift her to the window – often with wet cheeks and teary eyes – so she could wave goodbye to me.

I no longer felt I was a horrible mother for leaving my child when she cried, so the drive away was (somewhat) bearable.

That feeling of being a terrible mother comes along quite often, like when I can’t go to the science fair because the magazine goes to print that day. Or when the orthopedist asks when exactly the girl in front of him injured her ankle – which we now think is broken – and I have to tell him it was about a week ago, and we’ve been letting her walk and participate in sports all the while.

On page 72, SJ contributor Erica Voll writes about the things no one tells expecting moms, like “mommy brain.” Erica’s daughter is 2, so she has a good understanding of the unscientific condition. My daughters are 17, 15 and 13, so while I remember mommy brain, I know mommy guilt much better.

On the last day of school when Klein was in eighth grade, a final assembly started at 10 am. I knew awards were given out at that assembly, and I had told Klein I would be there. I was looking forward to attending. But since it started at 10, I stopped into the office to work a bit first. I was at my desk when my cell phone rang.

“Mom, are you coming?” It was Klein, and it was 10:05.

My heart sank. I had lost track of time. “Yes! I’m on my way.”

I arrived to see most of the assembly, but I missed Klein getting a math award. For me, that was a moment of mommy failure, and it was hard to forgive myself.

This mommy guilt is a powerful force, especially when you look around and get the feeling all the other moms are able to give 110 percent at home, even if they work – their house is organized, the laundry is done and put away, homework is checked, everyone is driven to activities, birthday gifts for parties on the weekend are bought, art supplies are found for the history project, prescriptions are picked up…some moms seem to handle all that, and then bake brownies to leave for an after-school snack. And, even worse, they’re happy.

My kids will tell you – I’m not that mom.

I like to think that what I consider my failures as a mom are actually opportunities for my kids to become independent. They’ve been doing their laundry for years. They know how to (and do) iron. They keep track of their tests, homework and projects. Sometimes, they make dinner for themselves. And they even schedule their follow-up orthodontist appointments. They recognize that there are things I can’t do for them, so they find another way to get it done.

I remind myself teaching independence is good thing. I usually have to remind myself over and over, because that mommy guilt is ruthless. But when I walked out of that nursery school alone so many years ago, Maura got to play with new kids, listen to stories, sing and dance around a classroom.

So maybe mommy’s failing, but my kids aren’t.

May 2011
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