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Have I Told You About My Gifted Children?

Lowered expectations is the key to happiness.

If you are fortunate enough to have a mother still among us, then I would advise you to show your appreciation to her on Mother’s Day.  I say this to you as a daughter who loves her mother, the woman who taught me that olive-skinned girls have to be very careful about pink lipstick and that a tablecloth makes any meal formal.

If you are fortunate enough to be a mother, then I would advise you to establish a realistic expectation of your children’s ability to express the debt of gratitude they owe you - and then decrease that expectation by three quarters.  I say this to you as a mother who loves her children, the people who once treated her to a “brunch” served exclusively from the vending machines at a bowling alley.

It is my sincere belief that expecting children to give the kinds of gifts that mothers truly deserve is a losing proposition.  Most mothers have earned elaborate handmade cards with heartfelt prose rendered with exquisite penmanship.  There should be antique jewelry and at least one sumptuous meal in their honor on that day.  But what if one of us happens not to win that particular jackpot?   

When my son was in second grade, he pulled a wrinkled sheet of paper out of the bottom of his backpack on Mother's Day and presented me with an acrostic poem with the word “MOTHER” scrawled vertically.  Each letter was represented by a descriptive adjective meant to warm my heart.  The first word was “Mammal” and the second was “Omnivore.”  

These many years later, that is actually one of my most memorable gifts.  However, in that moment, my expectations were misaligned with my child’s ability to be gracious.  Instead of supporting what turned out to be a very accurate description of me, I cried.  After all, I do have hair, nurse my young and have specially-shaped bones in my ears.  In addition, I have a tendency to eat everything. 

I have since learned to accept whatever gifts come my way as incredible bounty.  A half-finished bag of Gummi Bears and a miniature Batmobile?  That’s great!  A well-handled caterpillar who is now “sleeping”?  Thank you, and let’s let him finish his nap outside.

My daughter Scout once gave me four dollars and told me to get my teeth whitened.  She also painted and glazed a ceramic plate for me, but devoted only half of it to Mother’s Day and the other half to High School Musical on the premise that the latter was a more inspiring artistic theme.  I still have both gifts.

Little Poe has made several gifts for me at preschool, but she often instills them with such passion that she cannot give them away.  The pencil holder she made from popsicle sticks, tempera paint and a soup can was certainly stunning and I understand why she decided to keep it for herself.  I am content to visit it on the bookshelf in her room.

If I were a more philosophically-inclined person, I would take measure of the ways in which I inadequately celebrated my own mother when I remembered to do so at all.  If I were that person, I would note that part of being a child is living in the warm blanket of unconditional mommy love.  Children cannot appreciate what they cannot imagine living without.    

I would pay attention to the irony of the fact that we repay our mothers by being good mothers to our children, each generation instilling a debt which is paid forward.  Never is debt more willingly accepted nor more willingly offered.

However, I’m not that sophisticated.  I am only a mammal and an omnivore.  I don't know any better.

Justine van Engen May 07, 2011 at 10:52 PM
I know and love this poem. I have heard Billy Collins read it. Thank you for thinking of it in relation to anything I write.
kristi May 08, 2011 at 03:11 PM
Justine...brilliant! thanks for sharing with all of us!! i am sharing with my facebook fans ~ i know they will enjoy it too! www.facebook.com/barnowlprimitives happy mother's day!
long-time Restonian May 08, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Thank you Justine! Because of you I'm having the best Mother's Day yet! Instead of feeling resentful all weekend because I know Mother's Day will be a disappointment, I decided to let go of all expectations. It's because of your article, specifically: "part of being a child is living in the warm blanket of unconditional mommy love. Children cannot appreciate what they cannot imagine living without." I finally get it! I love my kids unconditionally and I know that they know it. They don't know that they appreciate me because I've been a constant presence of love and support in their lives. It's like acknowledging how wonderful oxygen is, it's always been there so we don't think about it, let alone appreciate it. I know they love me and that's enough. They're really good kids and that's the best gift of all. They may not be the best students, the cleanest or neatest (heck, they can't even pick up after themselves!), the most thoughtful, and the list goes on, but they are decent, kind human beings. Which is amazing considering I have 2 teenage boys and 1 almost-teen daughter! So I've decided to ask for the one thing that I love most in the world for Mother's Day: hugs. Today I get to hug my kids as much as I want and they'll hug me back (they always do). Perhaps they'll even initiate a hug or two! Either way, I'm happy! Thanks Justine, I hope you have Happy Mother's Day too!,
Justine van Engen May 09, 2011 at 12:50 AM
Thank you so much for this huge compliment. With an attitude like that one, you deserve a great day! I hope you are able to keep things in perspective the whole year round. Raising "decent, kind human beings" is a huge task and you should take a moment to congratulate yourself on having achieved that.
long-time Restonian May 10, 2011 at 02:43 AM
You bet! Love your articles, Justine. I haven't missed one since a friend introduced me to the Patch 3 months ago. I don't know how you do it. You're my hero!

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