After 18 years of parenting, what does it mean to be a good mother?

By Randi Olin

“You’re a good mother,” the dad said to me from across the dorm room. Our kids were randomly assigned to each other as freshman roommates, so I was surprised by his words. How did he know what kind of mother I was, we’d only just met a couple of hours earlier? All the same, I relished the comment. My 18 years of day-to-day parenting were coming to a natural end, so I didn’t want to miss this last moment of parental validation—even if it was from a near stranger. 

His wife had been rearranging the pencils she’d already put neatly into a desk accessory, as her son stood by watching her handiwork; my son and I were doing the opposite. He was duct taping an octopus-inspired contraption of cords he had arranged for his electronics, in between moving around his hats and picture frames on the three tiers of shelves above his bed. Far from overseeing him, I leaned against his newly made dorm bed “taking a break.” I watched with semi-interest as he threw a package of his favorite pens into a desk drawer with his other new school supplies. I wanted to give him some space.

When my son was younger, I remember thinking I was a good mom because I went to all of his little league games or because I cut up a big bowl of fresh berries to leave in the fridge so that he could easily grab a healthy snack. It was simple to quantify back then. Show up, be present = good mother.

But now that I am finishing up this chapter of everyday parenting, it doesn’t seem nearly as straightforward to define. The comparisons on social media, about all the right ways a mother should be, haven’t helped much either. Our current climate tells us that the more you do for your kids, the more intensively you parent, the better you are—without variation. And perhaps left to my own devices I would default to this kind of parenting, constantly present and making sacrifices for my kids. But I got put into a situation where that didn’t work, at least with my second child.

I’ve done it twice now, raised a kid into adulthood and sent them off into the world: my daughter will be graduating from college this spring, and my son is a recently launched freshman. Both are kind, good people; they are relatively happy. But for my youngest, I had no choice but to eschew the approach I wanted, the approach I had internalized as the “right” one. I was more hands-off with him, I had to be, his personality demanded it.

While we were still back home, my son and I had agreed to a two-armed vs a one-armed hug goodbye for the college drop-off. We worked through the details with our typical back-and-forth banter only days before we left. “I deserve it,” I finally said to him in the middle of our kitchen, after he had already easily agreed to it. And I meant it. For so long, I had made the conscious decision to prioritize his needs over my own. But now, at this stage in our relationship, I wanted to get what I needed too. 

We all have waves of insecurity and uncertainty, the are we doing it right? moments. Of course we do. It’s part of the inevitable cycle of motherhood. We’ve put so much of our energy into these little human beings that sometimes we need a sense of appreciation, of validation to make it seem worth it. For better or worse, we compare ourselves to the ways others approach parenthood, and how we measure up and, in the end, it’s only natural to question if we’ve been successful at the job.

“What makes you say I’m a good mother?” I finally asked the dad. It’s not something I would usually ask but perhaps I needed to know right then because it was an exceptionally emotional moment. The next day we’d be leaving campus to fly back home. Maybe I needed a nugget of something reassuring to take with me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my son, or to this stage of life.

“You let him do his thing,” the dad told me. And I knew precisely what he meant. Because I did. I had been doing it for years, parenting this kid with a lighter touch than I wanted. I couldn’t hover or helicopter, as I was prone to; he wouldn’t let me. Instead, I watched it all from the sidelines.

Our two-armed hug in front of the dorm didn’t last nearly long enough. The goodbye was quick, he wanted it that way. And when it was time to walk away—leaving my son there and a part of my life behind—I didn’t have any regrets. 

Did I do the best I can? Did it work? If I’ve learned anything these past two decades, it’s that giving it all doesn’t mean giving it all literally; sometimes it means not being the stereotypical definition of a good mother. And I’m okay with that. I guided my son towards independence, and now it’s time for him to stand on his own. That’s neither good nor bad, I think, it’s just plain old parenting. 

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is a newbie empty-nester and is trying to adjust to the quiet of her usually boisterous home. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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