After story hour, we sat with our knees above the little table in the children’s section, one young mother and I, surrounded by our broods. The children pounded salt dough flat and squashed cookie cutters into it to produce lumpy vehicles. They dangled their creations inches from our faces so we could admire their work. Charlie squashed and tasted. “Yuck! Charlie! Don’t do that!” He peeled off another tiny piece of dough and tasted again.
“How many children do you have?” the young mother asked.
“Five.” I said it the way I always do. Nonchalantly.
She answered with a typical response. “Five! How do you do it?! You seem so calm. You look too thin, too young to have five children. Five?!
I puffed up, just a little, though she couldn’t see, and responded truthfully, “We are having the time of our lives. The children are at the best age. I am treasuring every moment.”
We said goodbye a few minutes later at the library desk. Her children checked out a handful of books and I stood behind her with a full laundry basket. “It was so nice to meet you. I hope we see you here again.” I meant it.
On the way home, Charlie kicked the back of my seat, trying to keep his big yellow rain boots on. It was a beautiful sunny morning. We couldn’t find his sneakers, his only pair of shoes, and so he had to wear oversized galoshes... in public. I squirmed away from the bumps in the back of my seat and thought about that momentary puff of pride at the playdough table.
Why do I always do that? Why do I always think I must appear to be a great mother because I have all these kids? I thought more about my new acquaintance and her children. She took the time to take her kids to story hour. She let them take home the Berenstein Bears. She didn’t tell them, “Please make another choice. I’ll go crazy if I have to read that to you six times this week,” the way I always do. None of her children ate the play dough.
I looked in the rear view mirror to see Faith bent over her book. Her curls jammed every which way into a pony tail that she had hastily arranged the night before. Faith. On the way to the library, I had encouraged, “Lauren! (Strike one.)…Claire! (Strike two)…You! Girl in the pink shirt! Get your jacket on! The woman at the library called her children by the right name. Her children were beautifully dressed. She took the time to brush and braid their hair.
I am a good mother, but the reasons aren’t related to my number of offspring. I am a good mother for the same reasons that all good mothers are. I delight in my children. I listen to them. I hold them accountable. I hold myself accountable. I apologize for my mistakes and start over again after bad moments. I offer guidance and direction and give them space to learn on their own. This Friday morning, it took a sweet mother and a big pair of boots to drive that point home...again.