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It Happened: I'm a Bad Mom

Photograph by Twenty20

I’m told that once upon a time, my mom was a good mom. I don’t really have those memories, though. Around the time I was 8 years old, things started to fall apart. My mom went through a lot, and in the process of trying to find herself, she seemed to lose sight of me.

By the time I was 13, my dad had full custody. I never really saw my mom again, save the rare family event where we both just happened to be there.

When I was 25, she tried to reignite a relationship with me. She sent an e-mail explaining what a dark place she had been in all those years before. She apologized. She asked for another chance.

I couldn’t give it to her. Not because I hated her or was still harboring a lifetime of anger, but because … I had moved on. I had let go. I simply didn’t have room for her in my life anymore.

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Re-embarking on a relationship with my mother would have required sacrifice and effort on my part—both things I simply wasn’t willing to give to the woman who had given neither to me when I needed her most.

It wasn’t vindictive … it was self-preservative.

I was a mother now, and I knew I would never allow life to get in the way of that role.

Then, I became a mother myself. And while there had been those in my life who had predicted that once this life change happened, I would find myself more interested in reopening that relationship with my mother, the exact opposite proved to be true.

Now that I had this little girl in my arms, relying on me to be her everything, I couldn’t fathom how it was that my mother had ever allowed things to get so bad.

I had sympathy for her. My heart hurt over her struggles. But I couldn’t understand or excuse the choices she had made when it came to me.

I was a mother now, and I knew I would never allow life to get in the way of that role.

For the most part, I have remained true to that promise. My daughter is my life, and I would sacrifice all for her well-being. She is the best thing to ever happen to me, and the most important part of who I am.

I have no shame in admitting that. I know there are those who would scoff at the claim, demanding a woman be more than just a mother. And I am, absolutely. But let there be no doubt, “mother” is the most important role I play.

Then, just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine died. And his unexpected passing put me into a bit of a tailspin—one I never could have predicted. From the moment I got the call, my first instinct was to be with his friends, with his family. I needed to be with the people who loved him most. And in those hours, I also knew … I couldn’t be a mother.

I needed to grieve myself, separate from worrying about my little girl.

I immediately called a friend and asked if I could drop my daughter off. I knew I couldn’t break down in her presence. She’s still too young to grasp the concept of death, and I just needed to know she was safe while I dealt with all the rest.

Thankfully, I have amazing friends. And the first I called said, “Absolutely. Bring her over.” She kept my little girl for the next 36 hours—more than just a bit of a sacrifice, given that I rarely ever leave my daughter, and that this friend of mine has three kids of her own.

But she did it. She took control of my little girl, so that I could take control of everything else.

My grieving, and the focus on all that needed to be done, didn’t end there, though. For the next week, I took my daughter to preschool much earlier than normal and picked her up much later. My little girl, who had always before done half-days at daycare, was suddenly pulling nine-hour shifts away from me; I spent hours driving back and forth to where my friend’s family lived, over an hour away, doing what I could for them there. Because being there, feeling like I was helping with all that needed to be done was the only way I felt like I could breathe through this mess.

I was sacrificing my own daughter while I fought to take care of everyone else.

Unfortunately, she was at a brand new preschool during this time. She had only gone there for three days before my friend died. During those three days, I had ensured she was meticulously dressed and had packed the cutest little lunches for her new school adventure. I had hung around after drop-off to ensure she was OK and greeted her with bright smiles and warm hugs every day at pickup. We had walked home from school together, talked about her day and laughed over all the new stories she had to share.

For three days, I had set a good first impression on her new teachers.

And then, my friend died.

Like (my mom), I allowed life to get in the way. But unlike her, I was shaken to my core at the first sign of how my distraction might be affecting my little girl.

After that, I was frazzled at drop-off, eager to get my girl settled so that I could be elsewhere, surrounded by the people my heart was currently with. I forgot to sign her in, failed to pay attention to notes, sent her with the most pathetic lunches any child has ever eaten, and often showed up with no makeup and sweatpants on, simply trying to get through the day.

I was in mourning, to be sure—and probably a bit of shock. But these teachers didn’t know that. All they knew was that I was a single mom who seemed to be lacking in my commitment to that role.

Then one day, I dropped my daughter off and she launched herself into a massive fit. I attempted to calm her, but she wouldn’t allow me anywhere near her. A teacher finally came out and scooped her up. “What’s wrong,” she said. “Why are you sad?”

“Mommy!” My daughter shrieked, and I broke inside.

Me. I was the reason she was sad.

These teachers had no way of knowing how awful our previous 10 days had been. They had no way of knowing that I wasn’t this mom, or that my daughter was likely falling apart because she was feeding off of me and my sadness. They didn’t know me or her. So they didn’t know this wasn’t normal.

What do you do in that situation? What do you say?

I slunk away with my head hung low, feeling like the terrible mom I was currently being.

And for a moment, just for a split second, I thought of my own mother. Of the struggles she had faced and the ways life had distracted her from motherhood.

And it terrified me. Because I didn’t want to be her. I don’t ever want to be her.

Obviously, this was a rare event. I haven’t dealt with much death in my life, so I don’t know how long grief lasts, but I know that after that day, I was determined not to allow my own grief to affect my role as a mother any longer.

It was understandable for a few weeks as I waded through the fog. But it wasn’t acceptable to allow it to last forever.

And maybe that’s what sets my mother and me apart. Like her, I allowed life to get in the way. But unlike her, I was shaken to my core at the first sign of how my distraction might be affecting my little girl.

I was immediately determined to set things right.

Life happens. We all get thrown for loops, and sometimes it’s fair to say, “I can’t be a mother right now.”

But you can’t let that last forever. No matter what’s happened, no matter what’s going on, there comes a point where you have to pick yourself up and return your focus to what matters most.

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For me, that’s my daughter. This is not to say I’m no longer grieving. It’s not to say I’m no longer sad. But in this life, it’s me and her. And being her mom is the most important role I play. So if nothing else, she is the best excuse I’ve ever had to pull myself together and to return to being the good mother I yearn to be—even as my heart is still a bit broken, and life has still left me feeling a bit shaky in the knees.

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