10/21/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Mother(s) of All Mothers

Nicole Sprinkle

Recently, I was Facebook chatting with an old college roommate and friend, Anna, who has a 5-year-old daughter. I have a 6-year-old girl. In the midst of shop talk, she typed this non-sequitur:

"Meanwhile, did you ever think you could love someone as much as your daughter
i can so relate to how your mom felt about you
i remember the nice letters she would write you."

I thought back to my college days. I know my mom wrote me letters -- she still does -- but I couldn't recollect them vividly. Yet, they'd certainly made quite an impression on Anna. I realize how much I'd taken those missives for granted. Anna's mother, whom I like very much, was a very different type of mom. She was a career woman, divorced and with a very active social life. She and my roommate seemed so close to me; they talked about everything, including sex, the way you'd talk to your friends. She took us on beach vacations and even went out drinking with us sometimes. To me, that was very cool. My friend, though, coveted my more "motherly" mom.

All of this got me thinking about the many moms I knew growing up and how, in some part, they all offered me lessons or insight into how I would come to mother. Not any one of them was perfect -- as I will never be perfect -- but they all had at least something to offer. Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child; I say it takes the an accumulation of wisdom, character traits and parenting styles of the many mothers who cross your path.

For instance, when I want to try and understand my daughter on her level, talk to her about her friends and how she's doing socially, I become Anna's mom: a peer, open to hearing anything, willing to share details from my own life.

But when my child's sad, sometimes for no other reason than she has the blues that we all get, I summon Anna's stepmother, with her calming voice and her proclivity for affectionate touch, something my mom and I didn't indulge in frequently. I rub my daughter's back, stroke her soft hair. I think of Pat scratching Anna's arms lightly, something Anna would always ask for, even from me, her roommate, when she was feeling emotionally needy.

When my daughter is trying her best to write her new words, or work out a first grade math problem, maybe feeling frustrated as she fails to remember that many words in "Crazy English" have a silent e on the end, I become my high school best friend's mother. Hally's mom, a professor, who was extremely focused on academics, and would spend hours reading Hally's essays, proofing her work, helping her come up with interesting ideas for projects. When I'm ready to snap because my daughter can't seem to focus on her reading, or is complaining that she wants to play instead, I take a deep breath and I'm Shelly.

Then there's the me who wants to have my own life, go to a movie, see a band that I'm supposed be too old to care about, have one too many cocktails with a girlfriend. If I start to pull away from those needs, or tell myself I'm not a good mom if I leave my kid with a sitter, I think about a former neighbor of mine, a mom of two girls, and a fellow writer. She's spunky, witty and never lets her naturally brown hair be anything but bottle-red. She goes to readings and runs marathons and posts fun pictures of herself on Facebook at parties. Her daughters are smart, independent and love her dearly. I'm Mary Ellen on the nights I do something "adult" and don't feel guilty about it.

There are so many other mothers who've shaped me. My own grandmother gave me a love of adventure, always ready as she was to take me on a bike ride down dirt paths leading to boggy marshlands with wild orchids or to fields full of blackberry bushes. And willing, too, to sit for hours on the floor playing school. It's harder to have adventures in the city than it was by the Chesapeake Bay, but I do my best. I take my daughter for walks down our street, where we point out our favorite houses, or pick a flower off someone's blooming bush. I dress up with her and put on fashion shows. We search for the graffiti cat that someone's tagged on various buildings in downtown Seattle.

My other grandmother cooked as a way to show her love. As a working mom, I don't do nearly as much cooking as I'd like. But when I get out the bowls and the butter and flour and whip up a quick bread like Banana Bread, I let my daughter mix, crack eggs, and generally make a mess, just like my Nanny did. And lick the spoon of course.

And speaking of working, when I feel the push-pull of my professional life vs. my familial life, I think of a former colleague, a kind, smart woman with two sons. Baring my soul to her one day over my guilt at working late or, conversely, not working late enough, she offered these wise words: "If I ever feel like I'm doing an amazing job at work, I know my family life is suffering. But if everything's going great at home, I know I'm not doing my best at my job. I've become comfortable with both parts of my life being good enough. That's the key, because work-life balance is a myth." I know exactly what she means now.

I am all of these moms, but at different times and never in the right measure. Because that would make me a perfect mom, and I know that's not achievable. But it's enough to be these women when I can and, when I can't, to be just me -- a mom who maybe my daughter will someday take bits and pieces from, along with all the other mothers who cross her path.