05/11/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Mother, My Self

I was reluctant to write a post in honor of Mother's Day; I really was. So many others are putting forth such beautiful words, like here and here. Why not leave it to these masterful writers to reveal the profundity, the meaning of the day?

But I recently discovered letters my mother had written (on a typewriter, no less!) to a close friend -- before she became a mother at all. They were from her pregnancy with me, her first, and reflected on how she felt about motherhood as she stood at its threshold. She was young then, but thoughtful and articulate nonetheless. Growing up the daughter of immigrant Holocaust survivors and the younger sister of a handicapped brother, she was always precocious.

In the letters, among other things, she writes a great deal about her decision to return to work as an actuary after having me:

I recognize that I'm responding to social pressure. I hate when people assume things about me -- and so I hate when people assume that I'll quit work. It makes me feel so simple, transparent, and common. So I'm challenged to prove something to myself and to my social sphere. And I know that's very immature.

And elsewhere: "I view it now as a great challenge to become a mother and maintain intellectual pursuits."

As a child, I thought she knew everything, effortlessly. I assumed she always had the (right) answers at her fingertips.

Once, when we were drawing together, I recall admiring how my mother colored lightly, not pressing too hard on the paper, yet still filling the space. I was doing as most kids do -- pressing as hard as I could, as if seeking revenge on the page. I remember that I tried, but couldn't, mimic the soft confidence, the self-assured grace of her strokes.

While we were growing up, she always projected that she knew how to do just enough, but not too much, to create something beautiful, to have her desired effect. She knew when to push and when to ease up. When to forgo perfection. When to demand more, and when to let go.

But her letters reveal uncertainty. That she struggled with many of the same things I now do. There's something profoundly reassuring about seeing your mom as a person, complete with flaws and self-doubt. As her child, I never fathomed that possible. As a mother, I'm grateful, comforted even, knowing that she -- my beautiful, wise, fearless mother -- had doubts about how to do it all.

We're all figuring it out, one day at a time. We're just trying to do our best. We don't have all the answers, no one does, but we do what we can to make it work. To give our children a good life -- full of love and security -- and to feel happy and fulfilled while doing it.

We may second-guess and overanalyze; we may primarily see our failings, where we think we're getting it wrong, all the things we could be doing better. Our children? They see their mother. They believe we have the answers; they know they have our love. And they love us, just as we are.

So happy Mother's Day to all of you out there who are doing better than you think you are.

And to my own uncertain, yet fearless Mother most of all.


A version of this post originally appeared on Dina's blog, Coffee, Kids, and Common Things.