Was I the Best Mother I Could Be?

I friend recently tagged me on the Facebook Motherhood Challenge. It’s a feel-good activity: you post a picture that makes you proud/happy to be a mother and then tag other friends to post their pictures. Normally I love Facebook photos – beautiful babies, newly minted teenage drivers, pictures of weddings and graduations, even the ubiquitous selfies!  However, I’m still processing our son’s college drop off; I knew this separation was coming, but I, along with many other mothers, have ambivalent feelings about it.

When a mother looks at old pictures, she hopes she was a good parent

I had recently sorted through stacks of pictures for his graduation party – pictures of him through different stages, from his first ultrasound to a recent photo when we were out for breakfast. The ultrasound was not the awe-inspiring 3D pictures inside the womb that are now available. It was literally a speck the size of a grain of rice. I remember looking at it, feeling that this tiny blip couldn’t possibly be responsible for my unremitting nausea and vomiting. In the next ultrasound, vague shadows were picked out as a nose and hands.

I distinctly recall the dismay I felt when I realized that I had not been taking folic acid for the recommended six months before the pregnancy. Every book I read pointed out my errors as an expectant mother. As a resident-in-training, I often skipped meals, did not drink enough water, certainly did not get enough rest, and I was drinking coffee to keep me awake on those long overnight shifts at the hospital.  I was seriously screwing up this motherhood thing!

The pictures of him as a newborn make me smile, but one picture gives me pause.  He’s six weeks old, has just finished nursing, and I am in scrubs. The picture was taken my first night back at work in residency. I fed him at 10:30 PM and was at the hospital by 11:15 PM for an overnight shift.  I had bottles of breast milk in the refrigerator, but I hoped I would be able to nurse him in the morning.  It was an incredibly busy night with several admissions and two codes, so sign-out the next morning took much longer than usual. Breasts engorged, I finally headed back home to find he had already been fed.

I wonder how many nights of not having your mother there are too many nights?  Did it matter that I was not the one holding him, cuddling him, feeding him, singing to him?  He is likely better off without my singing, given how horrifically off-key I am, but I had read stories to him while he was in the womb and after he was born.  When I went back to work, the stories slowed down. As much as my husband loved him, I knew he was not reading to him, as he, too, was in training and craved sleep.  Did those missing stories contribute to his preference for watching Breaking Bad marathons over reading into the night?

Our tow-headed two-year old in his adorable striped pajamas – that was the night he banged his foot into the door. I checked it, thought it was fine, but the next day he was hopping like a one-legged bunny. The verdict after x-rays: a broken toe—not a fine parenting moment for a mother/doctor. But I see that picture and wonder what other injuries I may have missed over the years. Not the physical hurts, but the emotional wounds that needed tending. Is he emotionally resilient or is he lacking empathy?

I worry that with his logical approach to life and relationships, he may be too quick to dismiss the emotional responses people have, as “drama.” I wonder if his firm, “It’s fine, Mom!” declarations are a normal drawing of boundaries—a demarcation of his personal space. I worry that his apparent inability to cry over a movie or a book, suggest a coldness of spirit because I wasn’t there to cuddle him.

The obligatory sports team pictures where I cheered at games with passion never mustered for professional sports. I reflect over his 7th grade football photo, the year he quit mid-season. The family rule had always been, “if you start something, finish it.” However, we were making a mid year cross-country move and he wanted his friends, not the field. So we compromised. He, not his parents, would tell the coaches.

But was it an easy out, undoing the lessons of sports? The lessons of teamwork, dependability, were those now lost?  Will he find excuses to “quit” as an adult or will he stick with tough projects, hard classes, difficult relationships, even when inconvenient?

[More on why team sports are so valuable for kids here.]

More pictures.

Him with grandparents and cousins at his uncle’s wedding. He’s looking so grown up in his suit—an eighth grader. I see braces and traces of baby fat, recognizing the impending metamorphosis from child to young man. Should we have moved back to Jordan at this point, letting him experience his roots as more than a fun-filled vacation destination?

His connections with immediate family are strong, but the binds of extended family, second and third cousins, great-aunts and great-uncles, the glue of our Middle Eastern family, are tenuous. I wonder, will he develop a sense of obligation to far-flung family or will he retain the uniquely American world view of rugged individualism? Will he be able to strike a balance between the two? Will he understand that on the cusp of independence, people thousands of miles away are proud of his accomplishments and claim him as kin? Will he appreciate the powerful support of having family he may not even know about, praying for his wellbeing? Will he see these bonds as an embrace and not a stranglehold?

I look through the albums again; reflecting on his graduation picture – Class of 2016 with an adult size cap and gown, not the, “oh, so adorable” kindergarten graduation of years ago.

I see the culmination of years of prayer, loads of laundry, endless chauffeuring to school, practices, games, play dates, sleepovers. I talk to my husband, showing him the same pictures that have given me much angst, and asking if he has the same worries. Perhaps he is just trying to make me feel better, but his response carries the conviction of truth. “Sweetie, we did the best we could. We weren’t perfect parents, but he knows he is loved and THAT is the biggest gift we can give him.”

So, I go back and look at the pictures again.

Somehow, that grain of rice grew into my 6’2” man, despite the coffee and lack of folic acid. I see the young mother struggling to care for her son while juggling the demands of a career that allows her to care for others. I see the young man who watches The Office and How I Met Your Mother in marathon sessions, but enjoys reading books about history and philosophy, just not at the expense of sleep.

I see a young man, with his disdain for drama quietly make a mum, not for a girlfriend, but a special needs friend, because “every girl in Texas deserves a homecoming mum.” I see a young man with the self-discipline to meet his own deadlines, setting his own schedules for school work and leisure.  I see a young man, who despite keeping me at arm’s length when I pry, gives me hugs on a daily basis. I see a young man who calls his grandparents without my knowing, telling his grandmother stories that he hasn’t shared with me.

I see a young man who stays in touch with his cousins in Jordan, plans to visit the cousin in LA and enjoys spending time with his “cousins who are really my brothers” here in Texas.

Perhaps this is the nature of motherhood: love, joy, and pride, tinged with regrets. I hope these regrets are tempered by the serenity of knowing I did the best I could.

So, I think I will post a picture on Facebook, not one of the pictures with the carefully composed smile and perfect makeup. I think it will be the picture of a sleep deprived young mother with frizzy hair, watching her baby boy with a look of utter exhaustion, but absolute joy from this challenge called motherhood.

Related:

I Photographed My Children at All the Wrong Times 

Family Weekend: Do’s and Don’ts of Visiting a Kid in College  

How to Make Your Next College Care Package Your Best Yet 

nuha-saidNuha Said is a 45-year old rheumatologist who loves to read and write. She recently dropped her only child off to college and is  learning about being an empty-nester first hand. She lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with her husband of 20 years.

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