My Mom's Selflessness Made Me Wonder If Motherhood Was for Me

Liz Alterman

Growing up, my mom seemed like a superhero to me. In place of a cape, she wore a red, cable-knit poncho and instead of flying through the air, she barreled down suburban side streets in a paneled station wagon. Armed with a kind word, a strawberry-frosted cupcake, and stain-remover, she handled everything gracefully and effortlessly -- and it terrified me. How would I ever measure up?


You see, my brothers and I never went to a friend’s house without a pan of freshly made Rice Krispie treats. As our mother handed them to us, she'd remind us to say "please" and "thank you," and bring back her trusty 9” x 13” Pyrex dish (so she could replenish it for the next playdate of course).

Throughout our childhoods, our mom never missed an opportunity to make us feel as if we were her sole reason for being, often dropping everything to ask about our days, give us a ride, or help with a homework assignment we'd left until 12 hours before the due date. 

She listened to our dreams, ailments, and endless bickering with equal reserves of patience. I don’t know if I can recall a time she slept later than we did, that she didn’t have the ingredients in the house to whip up a layer cake, that she wasn't prepared to sew a button back on to our favorite shirts, or rehabilitate a stuffed animal with old panty hose and a bit of TLC.

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From an early age, I recognized a selflessness in her that, even as an adult, I wasn't sure I could ever emulate. But she had always wanted to be a mom, I'd often told myself, taking her for granted. She loved caring for us, right?

As I got older, I realized the ridiculousness of that statement and wondered how many times this sweet woman had bitten her tongue in an effort to not unleash the tirade of expletives that were no doubt swirling through her mind as we gave her a hard time about the meal she'd prepared for dinner.

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Watching her selfless example made me understand that the motherhood business was not for the faint of heart. Skinned knees healed, but were quickly traded for the broken hearts of teens who begged for the car keys and, of course, a bit of cash. And did any of us stop to ask her about her day? Most likely, no.

It all seemed like too much. 

It was wonderful to be my mother’s child -- but it was daunting and made me wonder: Did I ever want to be a mother? I supposed that if I had been born to a woman who didn't care if I never mailed a thank-you note, had read Little Women, or had the scarf she knit for me to tie around my neck on cold winter mornings, maybe I'd have looked at motherhood with a different attitude. Perhaps I'd have thought, "I'm going to get this right!" and longed for the day when I could provide all the things I wished I'd had.

Instead, I pondered all the homemade birthday cakes, the dresses ironed while the rest of us slept, the eyes and ears watching and listening, making us feel as if everything we did was important, and thought, "I have enormous shoes to fill and I'm going to fail miserably."

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What I didn't realize is that what looks like work from the outside isn’t nearly as hard when you're doing it for someone you love. What I was forgetting -- and what I realized as soon as I became a mom -- is that no one is born with a finite amount of caring. You don't arrive at a certain age only to discover that you've used up all the concern and compassion that you were born with and your loved ones have to fend for themselves when that wellspring evaporates.

I've been surprised over the years to hear my mom say that she felt like she made a lot of mistakes along the way. So, it turns out that even when someone thinks you're a superhero, you might actually be winging it. What I looked at as huge sacrifices, she viewed as simply part of the job description. And now, on some level, I do too. And it doesn't feel impossible. It just feels like love.



Image via Liz Alterman; design by Anne Meadows

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