Mama, watch this… I am swimming in the indoor pool where our family has a membership. I flip upside down and try to walk on my hands across the shallow end. I can feel my legs tiling to the side, closer and closer to the surface until I lose it entirely and splash down sideways. My mother reclines in a folding lounge chair, a paperback in her hands. She works full-time, and she has carved these evening hours at the pool out of a busy schedule so we can have family time, exercise, bonding, something. She is my maypole, and everything I do is wrapped around her. I do not understand why she does not want to watch my twentieth attempt at hand-walking.
I am now 43, and my youngest is eight.
Mama, look at me!
Mama, watch this!
Mama, did you see when I…?
My son pelts me with questions after every activity: hockey, swimming, playing in the backyard. And no, I never—or rarely ever—see the feat in question.
My body is there with my children, but my mind is full of my own things: who needs to be where, when, and what needs to happen in order for that to occur, what I can cook for dinner that everyone will eat without complaining, a half-thought I want to remember to write down and expand into an essay. I look at him but don’t watch him closely. I check my emails on my phone. I do puzzles at hockey practice. I am not present. I can’t sustain the level of attention he desires, though I understand his need for me to do so.
My adult self is superimposed over the child-me. I remember that feeling, every inch of my body begging my mother to watch just one more time. I am not the parent I meant to be. But I realize that no amount of watching me would have made me feel seen. If she watched twenty times, I would have wanted twenty-one.
I try different answers to the “were you watching” question:
I see that you love being a goalie.
I can tell are improving.
I love how happy you look.
My answers satisfy neither of us. When he is on the ice, he keeps an eye on me in the stands, the same way I watched my mother at the pool.
The truth is, that I do watch. I see him stand there in the goalie net when no puck is nearby, ready and waiting. I see him pump his legs on the swing set, his head down as his arms pull back on the chains. I see him stare at the television. I watch him every night while he is asleep. I suspect my mother watched me in unnoticed moments, too. I think that is the nature of mothers—to watch when no one is looking, and never see the one thing our child asks us about. I care less about getting credit for watching and more for him feeling ignored.
Small bursts. I can’t watch every moment. I will never see every play he makes on the ice, but I can listen to him tell me about it afterwards for an extra minute, make eye contact, not rush him out of the locker room so quickly. I can pull him onto my lap more often, pay attention to his conversations—even the ones about TV shows I don’t care anything about—and give him undistracted Mama time. I want him to know that even if I am not watching every minute, I am interested in who he is and what he does.
But there is something else I learned from my mother—an acceptance that I can’t always be present, but that what I can do will be enough. She tells me:
“There are many things that I failed in as a parent, but I know in my heart that I love you and that I did the best I could.”
I have to trust that he will look back and remember a mother’s love more than the individual moments when I feel short. If so, I will have done my job, even if I didn't watch him every single minute.
Copyright © 2023 Lara Lillibridge
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