I am not speaking of overt neglect or abuse, or even intentional harm. But somewhere in the process of parenting you, your darling mother will make a poor decision or be distracted for a split second and you will be irreparably harmed.
Or at least that is how you will tell the tale, and in spite of her attempts to play down the course of events, your mother will secretly and guiltily agree with you.
For instance, I’m sure my son will share the story of when, at the age of 2, he stepped off the pier we were standing on at our cottage and plunged underwater while I stared at him FOR A FULL 3 SECONDS trying to figure out if I could retrieve him by reaching my arm out rather than getting fully soaked. I did ultimately jump in after him and yank him to the surface, but I am sure for those three seconds his poor little mind questioned all he knew about the universe and it is a miracle that he survived and has not been warped for life by my hesitation.
My own sad story dates to my 19th year, when I was fully and pathetically in the throes of a chest cold. Insistent that I was unable to go to school, I spent a week consisting of days on the couch in front of the television and nights where I would literally crawl on the floor to my bedroom at night. I was dying. Clearly I was dying. How could she not tell I was dying?
My mother said I was not dying. She felt I was being overly dramatic and told me to knock it off. When I remained steadfast, she ultimately relented and took me to the doctor, if only to call my bluff. The doctor took out his stethoscope, listened to my back, declared it to be viral pneumonia and prescribed a month of bed rest. I tossed the diagnosis at my mother like an accusation. It was met with silence.
My mother’s own near-brush with tragedy came around the age of 12, I think? Maybe younger. Feeling deathly ill and weak one morning, my grandmother pushed her out the door nonetheless, and forced her to walk to school. Based the version of the story told me by my mother, I pictured a 20-mile walk across countryside in dire weather. (My mother grew up in suburban Ottawa and the school was down the street.) She was sent home when she developed a rash. It turned out my mother had scarlet fever. She did, however, live.
There are stories in the news every day of parents who abuse and neglect their children. Horrific stories. These are not them.
If this is your reality — if you have just one story that you bring out of storage with which to tease and shame your mother — a moment characterized by a split-second moment of weakness or error of judgement where you ultimately turned out ok, you probably have a pretty decent parent.
Because it’s the part we leave out of the stories that is important.
Grandma took my mother to the doctor, got her the antibiotics and took care of her. My mother took me to the doctor, took care of me, and even collected my homework from the school (uh… thanks I guess). And although I will replay that hesitation in my mind over and over and over, I did jump in the water to save my son. I remind myself that it didn’t happen because I wasn’t paying attention or being neglectful. I was there, standing beside him. And he tripped and fell in. And I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I got him out.
We do a lot of things with our children as mothers which we convince ourselves will scar them for life. And kids can be scarred, emotionally and physically. But these aren’t those stories. These are the stories of halfway decent, doing-their-best, pretty good mothers.