There’s a story of a family who goes into a restaurant and the waitress comes over and says to the little boy what would you like and the little boy says I want a hamburg and french fries and a coke. The mother immediately interrupts and says he’ll have the chicken breast and broccoli and a glass of milk. The waitress turns to the boy and says, and what will you have on that burger? And the boy says to his mother see she knew I was real.
A few months ago in a hotel lobby I found myself front row center in a consummate Norman Rockwell scene. It was holiday time and beautiful families were sitting in little groups. The tree glittered, the fire glowed and the children all knew that life was magic. I watched a 12 or 13-year-old approach her ( I assumed) grandfather. You could tell their relationship was pure by the way they both lit up when their eyes met. She reached out a flat palm and placed it on top of the back of his outstretched hand. They began that game of piling hand over hand until they both burst into gorgeous laughter. I was so happy to witness such love. Then they began a conversation. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but their body language, her leaning in, him gazing up, their gestures so animated, I could actually feel their delicious connection.
Then I saw the mother silently sneak around the Christmas tree with her camera and I thought, perfect! This is a winning shot that she will have of her daughter and her dad forever. I almost said quick, take it now. But of course I was just an observer and besides I didn’t want to break the spell. But then something happened that keeps haunting me. She broke the spell. “Chloe!” she yelled across the room. Chloe continued her dialogue with her grandfather. “Chloe!” her mother yelled louder, until Chloe looked up. “Put your arm around Grandpa and look into the camera.” Chloe and the old gentleman were both kind of stunned into taking their orders but they did as they were told. My immediate thought was oh my gosh did I do that? And my next reaction was of course I did. Maybe not exactly that . . . probably something even worse.
I’ve talked to all my friends and everyone has a regret. Well, a million regrets but usually one killer. And we carry that killer around like a sack of cement sitting squarely on the heart. What I should have done helps nothing. “Shoulding” on yourself serves no one.
So mothers everywhere: you who never screwed up and you who screwed up just a touch and those of us who think we screwed up way too much, we who swore we’d never make the mistakes our mothers made, (thereby ensuring that we’d invent a bunch of brand new disasters that would inflict deep pyschological scars on our innocent unsuspecting sponges), why don’t we just give ourselves a break, cut ourselves some slack. And remember it’s never too late to have a happy motherhood. My kids turned out to be real exceptional human beings.
And most likely so did yours.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop. She is a commentator for NPR.