Going into card stores around Mother's Day had always been such a challenge. Hallmark doesn't offer a card that says, "Mom, you really let me down. Why didn't you do a better job?"
Instead the display of cards are full of praise for perfect mothers, mothers who didn't neglect gymnastics practice because she wasn't interested in the sport, picked up their kid on time and even took interest in Homeroom 101. These were the mothers who deserved the cards that read, "I Love You More Than Anyone."
For years, I felt like a fraud if I bought those sugarcoated cards because my relationship with my mother was anything but sweet. It was tinged with anger, disappointment and regret.
As a compromise, I would settle on the blandest that simply declared, "Happy Mother's Day," and then we would go through our familiar ritual. The card, The flowers. The thank-you. The silent dinner where nothing important was ever discussed.
Throughout the years, my mother would sigh during one of our many fights and declare, "Our relationship will change when you have kids."
It certainly came as a surprise that she was right.
Now there are times when it doesn't matter that she hasn't read Dostoyevsky as long as she can recite from Dr. Spock. Remedies for sore throats, teething pain cures and debates over the nutritional merits of fresh or bottled applesauce have opened a dialogue I never thought could exist.
And then there is something else.
Good manners and good sense prohibit me from gushing to friends about my son's every little milestone, which of course are the same as any other child's, but to me and my mother they are miraculous wonders of life.
Whether it's muttering some sound which hopefully will one day resemble English or hitting his first baseball, my mother can be relied on to say, "Oh, isn't that cute."
Then there are those times when my son has awakened in the middle of the night feeling sick for no apparent reason and I'm struck by the realization that my mother also must have had sleepless nights where she too, was unsure of what to do and somehow managed to find a solution.
It is these times that link me to her, for both of us are now mothers, two women who at long last have found something in common.
Part of the problem has been generational. I am of a generation of daughters who identified more with Dad than Mom, girls who wanted thriving careers, financial independence and veto power, girls who cared little about the nuances of Picasso or Prada. The battleground was set because I didn't respect what she valued and could teach me.
Instead, I cared about books, politics, sports and interesting debates about the issues of the day, topics that made her the outsider.
But part of the problem was also Mom. While she always made sure our clothes were clean, our education first-rate and our manners impeccable, she never paid any attention to our emotional lives, believing as she often said that children should be seen and not heard. Instead, she catered to my father and his needs and the social life they pursued. We often felt as valued as her Wedgewood vase on the foyer table. We were just another accessory in her life that she dusted off and displayed when needed.
Now, as the friends that she cared so much about have disappeared and she wants to spend more time with her children, she realizes she made a mistake. "It was our generation," she now explains to justify so many wrongs.
I want to say, "Look at Michele Obama's mother, Marion Robinson, who clearly had her priorities straight and devoted herself to her husband and children. That's not an excuse." But I'm long past comparing and now think of what we have vs. what we don't.
Recently we took my son to the Central Park Zoo, and my mother commented on how she used to take me there many years ago.
I didn't remember her teaching me the magic of why birds eat with beaks instead of heart-shaped lips or debating whether a cougar could run quicker than a tiger. But as she stared into the distance, reminiscing about life as she saw it, I realized she was thinking back to another time, a time when she could dress her little girl in frilly dresses and believe that I would turn into a mirror image of herself. Instead, the child could not be more different.
But my son is oblivious to these differences, as the innocent always are. When he pets a baby goat, my boy giggles in delight and looks at these two women for approval.
"I love that boy so much," my mother declared. "I do too," I replied.
In that moment, I realize that my son has been the catalyst for a new relationship between my mother and me. For my mother, he's the opportunity to start afresh, to make up for some of her mistakes, to relive moments that she truly missed. For me, I can now be the mother I always wanted.
But as we sit on the bench at the zoo, I wonder what my son will think of me 30 years from now when he brings my grandchild here. Will he think his mother was fun, loving and inventive but too involved in his life? Will he still be as enthusiastic over my red hot buffalo wings and chocolate chip cookies? If something rocks our family, will I have been strong enough to maintain his respect?
Looking back, most of my friends have their complaints about their own mothers too. Jennifer's mom is too critical. Shari's is too superficial. Mary finds her mother meddlesome and nosy while many lately complain that their mothers won't babysit their grandchildren as they had hoped. I wish my mother would embrace my stepdaughters and love them like I do.
But maybe the perfect mom is an ideal and rarely a reality.
In the end, I guess we do the best job we know how. My mother truly loves my son and for that I love her more than I ever thought I could. My son has opened my heart to love not only him, but also her.