My kids have no delusions about me being a perfect mother. Dishes slip from my fingers just as easily as parent-teacher conference dates slip from my mind. I make mistakes just as readily as I forgive theirs.
I’m OK with this. In fact, I’m glad about it. I want them to understand that no one, not even their mother, is perfect. So, if they hear me slip out an occasional swear word, or if they have to suffer through a dinner of mushy pasta, or cringe watching me trip over my too-high heels, or even miss a karate class here and there because I just can’t get my act together, it will only serve to make our relationship more authentic.
But, these are forgivable infractions, accidental mishaps, nothing that speaks to the quality of my deeper character. The stories that I tell them about my morals and priorities are much different.
When I tell them about being a kid, it’s usually stories about how I was a shy bookworm who got bullied. When I talk about my college years, I tell them that I had lots of friends and got good grades. When I tell them how I spend my afternoons without them, I mention writing and doing errands.
These things are true, for the most part. But, there are other truths. Truths that are ugly and jagged and buried deep in my soul. Truths that are harder to share, especially with the ones looking to you for guidance in forming their own characters.
Last week my daughter told me about a boy on the bus who had been hassling her. My first reaction was to turn to her older brother and ask him why he didn’t stand up for his sister. His cheeks caught fire and his eyes widened.
“I…. I didn’t see it happen,” he mumbled.
It may be true that he didn’t see it happen. But, it’s more likely that he didn’t know how to respond. He is a sweet gentle boy who avoids confrontation whenever possible.
I opened my mouth to give him a lecture about being brave and protecting people you care about. Then a solitary tear fell down his cheek and all my stern words crumbled to bits.
I took a deep breath and told him a story. A story that I’d never told anyone else for fear that they would think less of me. A story that even now makes my heart hurt. A story about a sweet, gentle girl who avoided confrontation whenever possible.
When I was 16, I played the role of Margot, Anne Frank’s older sister, in a community theater production. I was much younger than most of the cast members, and much less confident. I remember that first day of rehearsal so clearly. The other actors were all sitting together, laughing and telling jokes.
When they noticed me standing in the doorway, they welcomed me warmly into their circle. I asked them what they were laughing about, and they replied that they were making jokes about Jews going into ovens. One of the cast members turned to me with a big smile and said, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”
I can still feel the fire that started in my cheeks and raced down to my stomach. I wanted to tell them that I was Jewish. I wanted to tell them that their jokes were horrible and disgusting and not funny at all. I wanted to tell them to shut the fuck up.
But, as hard as I tried, not a sound would come out of my mouth. I just stood there, feeling the heavy weight of shame crushing my insides.
I carried that shame with me for years like a tiny hard pebble tucked deeply in my heart, right next to all the other jagged stones of regret and disappointments I’ve had in my own character.
I could have thrown those stones at my son, one by one, demanding that he not make those same mistakes, insisting that he be stronger than his flawed mother. Instead, I tried to wrap that hard stone of shame into a loving gift of assurance. I hoped that, by telling him of my own flaws, he would see that he was not alone.
I watched his face while I talked. Could he forgive me for being so weak? Would he ever listen to my advice again? Did he still think I was a good person?
He stared out the window for a few minutes, not saying anything. When he turned back, his lips were smiling, but his eyes were sad. I knew that look. It’s the same one I give to my kids when they aren’t being the great people I know they can be.
“It’s OK, mom. You were just a kid.”
I gave him a hug and he scooted off to play with his brother.
He was right. I was just a kid. But, being an adult doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped making mistakes. Confrontation is still something I struggle with, even when I know it’s important to speak up.
It was hard to tell my son that story. Harder still to feel his disappointment in me. But, I’m not sorry that I did. It’s good for him to know that even I can make terrible mistakes, and even more important for me to remember the look in his eyes when I do.