Over the past seven years, I’ve come to understand my strengths as a mother. My weaknesses, too.
I’m great at talking, first of all. Especially the hard conversations. I think my time as a youth worker prepared me for this. When you spend five years having daily chats about awkward subject matter with even more awkward teenagers about everything from personal hygiene to sex to drug use to abusive relationships, you get used to diving into the tough stuff, erasing the judgment, letting your matter-of-factness draw out theirs.
I’ve always felt comfortable talking to Olive about the tough stuff, too. About the divorce, moving, consent, swearing, body image, my dating, her fear and anxiety, and the budding dramas in her friendship groups. Talking about things feels like it comes easily to me; the words show up and I speak them. We talk a lot, and she tells me everything. I’m good at that stuff.
I think I was a good newborn mother, too. The hours of rocking and shushing suited me. I loved breastfeeding. She was small and immobile and fit perfectly into my arms. My lullabies were always a little off-tune, but she never seemed to mind.
I’m not the fun mom, though. Never have been, probably never will be. I’m not the mother that plays and goofs around and says yes and indulges. This was true even before my divorce but has become more pronounced in the past few years as I’m now the “school year parent”, responsible for homework and studying and strict bedtimes. She spends summers and vacations at her dads, and her time with me is necessarily predictable.
I find myself saying no a lot. No because I’m tired, no because I don’t want to clean up the mess it will make, no because money is tight and time is tight and sometimes I’m just counting down until bedtime. I know in the long run play will matter less and less but for the past few years, and for the next few, too, it sits front and centre of Olive’s world while I sit off to the side, watching and reluctantly joining in every so often when the guilt becomes too overwhelming.
I think I’ve almost accepted this part of myself and this weakness of mine as a mother. I think Olive almost has, too. I work hard to fill this need of hers with friends and activities and other people who do like to play, but I still feel bad sometimes. I still sometimes sit there, after she’s gone to bed, wondering if the things I’m good at (the talking, the hugs, supporting her interests and encouraging her curiosity) outweigh the things I’m not.
I think this is why events like birthdays or Christmas or Valentine’s Day have such a special place in my heart. I am the fun mom for a day. I can surprise her and watch that delighted grin spread across her face. I indulge her and say yes to her and for a day I can let go of the need to be the responsible parent; I can put my tiredness aside and do the things she wants me to do. I have so much fun planning for these events, and for her birthday I get super excited about the cake.
I guess maybe saying it’s about the cake is a bit misleading – I don’t care so much about the cake itself. I use box mixes now (a far cry from her first birthday cake, which was sugar-free and gluten-free and took a month of testing before I settled on a recipe) and while I do make my own icing, it’s mostly just because I like using a hand mixer. But the decorating of the cake? That is where I shine.
It started with her third birthday when she was obsessed with dinosaurs and requested a dinosaur cake. That birthday was her first since the divorce and I was determined to do it right, determined to give her a fantastic day that would eclipse the rough months which preceded it. Determined to be a good mom during a time I felt like I was failing on a daily basis.
My mom, sister and I surprised her with a trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum and I tried to be the fun mom, marvelling over dinosaur bones and carrying her whenever she asked to be carried. I said yes and I goofed around and I tried so hard to be happy during a time I thought I was breaking.
I stayed up the night before her party, making dinosaur hats and lettering chalkboard signs and putting the finishing touches on her gift. And the next day, when I carried that cake through the kitchen doorway and saw her face, it was so worth it.
The Pinterest tutorials, the hours painstakingly cutting out shapes and icing it and placing M&Ms and even the fact that I messed up the face – which I now realize should have been put at the front of the head, not on top of it.
When I walked through that doorway with the cake in my hands and looked at her face though, it felt like her birthday was perfect, even though I wasn’t.
It’s been the same every year since. She chooses a cake and I spend too much time making it because my baking skills are haphazard at best, and then I bring it out and I search for that smile, that look, the feeling of awe blooming in her face.
It’s enough and it’s everything. In these moments I am a good mom.
Olive turned seven on Saturday. She’s having a bird-themed birthday party with her friends next weekend but out of nowhere, a week and a half ago she developed a deep and abiding obsession with Godzilla. Godzilla movies, Godzilla games, she’s even constructed a lovely little Godzilla house in our living room, complete with a cozy bed and a car.
Obviously, I had to make a Godzilla cake. The Godzilla toy was green, so I spent the night before colouring it with Sharpie. The cakes all fell apart while I was stacking and frosting them and while I’d planned to take a chunk out of one corner to make it look destroyed, I didn’t have to in the end – the cake destroyed itself.
Honestly? It’s probably my worst cake yet, I was in a rush and it showed, but when I brought it out the look on her face was the same. The awe, the amazement, the joy. It was perfection.
I’m especially grateful it was because for her party this weekend, Olive asked to help make the cake. She said she wanted to help bake it, and frost it, and decorate it, too. I love the idea of working side-by-side like this (Olive loves to bake and her skills definitely surpass my own) but I know it won’t be quite the same. The surprise will be gone. When I bring it out, candles lit, she’ll already know what it looks like.
But there’s no point going back with things like this. There’s no point in trying to walk back time, no point in saying no, no point in trying to stop that progression forward or reclaim those traditions that your child is growing out of. You just have to smile and say yes and make new traditions, instead.
The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I think it’s right this way. It’s like pulling back the curtain on a facade, it’s letting my daughter see the effort and deep joy that goes into creating these perfect days. It’s letting her see that her mother is more than just the sum of her parts – even the missing or broken ones.
She can make the cake with me and see all the mistakes I hide with icing, all the worrying that it won’t turn out right. She can see the mixing and setting and cooling and cutting and frosting and decorating; each little step along the way.
And when I bring the cake out at her party, it’s true she won’t be awestruck because of how the cake looks, but I think she’ll be beaming with pride because she was right there, working alongside me to create it.
Parenting feels less and less like a solo game as she gets older. She helps me so much more now. I mean, she’s more independent, dressing herself and doing chores, but she also understands more. She forgives more. I think the older she gets, the more she’s able to put my role as a mother in the context of my identity as a whole person.
I hope she’ll be able to put my shortcomings in context eventually, too. I hope one day she understands the reason that money was tight, why I was so tired all the time, and all of the hard work that goes on behind that curtain, making this life hum along seemingly without effort – fridge stocked, homework done, bedtimes routine and predictable.
The truest thing I’ve ever known about parenting is that it’s a constant process of letting go. Letting go of expectations, letting go of perfection, letting go of the life you thought was waiting for you and moving instead towards the life you’d always secretly hoped you’d end up with.
Life these days is richer than I ever thought possible and filled with more love than I ever believed I deserved. I had to go through the tough parts to get here, though – we both did. There was loss and anger and many things that felt like senseless destruction. I tried to smooth over a lot of it, hiding the worst bits. I worried constantly (and still do) that it wouldn’t turn out right. But it’s been worth every single ounce of that effort, and I’m not ashamed to show the hard work. I think in many ways, those are the best bits. Because it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, I rarely felt like I knew what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I believed it would be worth it.
On Friday night I said goodnight to my six-year-old daughter and on Saturday morning I hugged my seven-year-old for the first time. It was a beautiful birthday; I am so, so lucky to have this girl.