When I was in college, I had a roommate that was fanatical about the bathroom. After every shower she would wash down the walls, clean the mirror, scrub the sink and mop the floors. I wasn’t sure if she was bathing in there or doing surgery (and, given the amount of time she kept the room occupied, it wouldn’t have been too surprising to find out she was routinely performing several open-heart surgeries in a row). The thing about her, though, was that as neat as she was about the bathroom, when it came to the kitchen she was a complete slob: moldy dishes in the sink, uncovered food in the fridge, ancient withered apples hanging in baskets by the door. It was like she was working with lasers and microscopes in her pristine bathroom surgery, while in her ramshackle witch’s hut of a kitchen she was still prescribing leeches.
So which was it? Was she a neat freak, or was she a slob? Felix or Oscar? I think the truth of the matter was that, just like the rest of us, she was a little bit of both. She was a Felix in the bathroom, and an Oscar in the kitchen.
It’s not that odd, really: like Whitman said, we are all vast; we all contain multitudes. In other words, we all are good at some things, and not so good at others. It makes the news when a space shuttle pilot is also a violin virtuoso for the very reason that it is so unusual and unexpected. Why then, if it is such a given that no one should be expected to be good at everything, is there such a double standard when it comes to being a mother?
I have never met any mothers who are good at everything; conversely, I have never met any mothers who did not feel incredibly bad about this. It’s ridiculous. I would bet you anything that most plumbers don’t go to bed at night castigating themselves for not being better at dentistry, and yet most mothers do the equivalent of that very thing each and every night. The ones who are good at coaching soccer kick themselves for not sending homemade cupcakes to the school party, and the ones who can knit an entire sweater in two weeks beat themselves up for not planning a two week summer vacation at the same time.
The worst part about it is that it isn’t the kids who are making these demands; on the contrary, we do it to ourselves. I have yet to meet a single child who preferred Beef Stroganoff over Hamburger Helper, and yet on those nights when it is all we can do to make sure the hamburger actually had time to cook all the way through before we dumped the cheese powder on top, we act as if our kids are sitting in the dining room with their little blue notebooks, trying to decide whether or not we are going to keep our one Michelin star.
It would be so easy to blame Martha Stewart and her ilk for this phenomena, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this was the case with mothers long before the Food Network was on the air. I certainly remember my own mother muttering under her breath often enough about “goddamned June Cleaver.” And, as far as I know, her mother probably complained about some perfect mother on a radio show or something. (And before that, there were always perfect mothers in books.)
Maybe it’s time to let go of the idea of the perfect mother—or at least the mother who’s perfect at everything. And if we have to worship some fake mom on TV, let’s at least let’s make her someone the rest of us could possibly one day be.
Personally, I’m picking Roseanne.