“You can forget about being a perfect mom,” my mother said to me over the phone when my husband and I arrived home from an emergency clinic where my two-month-old daughter had received a shot of strong antibiotic for a bacterial infection she'd caught on the plane a few days earlier, and my two-year-old son had been diagnosed with yet another ear infection.
He had screamed several times the night before, but I fought my instincts and let him cry it out because a friend insisted it was the only way to teach him to sleep through the night.
My list of mothering mistakes was growing by the day: I shouldn't have flown with Katherine so young. I should have cut out caffeine during my first trimester--maybe that was the cause of Katherine's irregular heartbeat, detected when I was pregnant.
And would David bill me twenty years from now for his counseling sessions to work through the time his mom ignored his desperate cries at 2 A.M. in an effort to try to teach him how to sleep?
Of course that was nothing compared to the guilt I felt when one-year-old David wandered into the utility closet and squirted some tub and tile cleaner into his eyes. After I flushed out his eyes, a neighbor drove us to the emergency room since I hadn't a clue if he swallowed the stuff. Five hours later I learned he was okay.
But by far my biggest mistake to date was publicized on the front page of the Annapolis paper on my birthday this year for everyone to read.
I tried to do a good thing for a friend on Ash Wednesday. She asked me if I would watch her two-and-a-half-year-old after preschool for an hour or two. I readily accepted, feeling that I owed someone a work of charity, especially since I hadn't made it to Mass yet.
“No problem,” I said, as I strapped her son's car seat between my son and my four-month-old. “It'll be fun. We'll get lunch, ice cream, and then feed the ducks.”
It was a perfect day for that: sunny and in the 40s. So after the two guys fueled up on sugar (mistake number one), we headed to the city dock to feed the ducks what was left of the boys' grilled cheese sandwiches. I had the baby strapped on to me in order to manage the quick movements of two-year-olds with both my hands, which is why I couldn't do anything but scream when my friend's son fell into the frigid water. As I frantically tried to unstrap the baby from my chest, a man sitting nearby dove into the water and rescued the boy.
He was an angel of God sitting there with ashes on his forehead, eating sushi and waiting to help us. I couldn't have lucked out more. A former lifeguard, he had swum the polar bear swim competition in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. By the time I had one strap off my shoulder, he had the boy with one hand and was swimming with him toward the nearest ladder.
Accidents happen. I've been hearing those two words more than I'll ever care to in the last month. We read about accidents every day in the paper. A truck plummets off an overpass onto a busy highway at rush hour, killing people in the cars below. A water taxi capsizes in gusty winds, leaving 25 people stranded in the water.
But when accidents happen to moms, we feel responsible. And very, very guilty.
I've heard my share of mom horror stories since everyone read about my afternoon with the ducks. A good friend of mine didn't mean to give her two kids food poisoning when she fed them bad meatballs, which they threw up for a day and a half. Another friend turned her back for a second to find her two-year-old at the bottom of some stairs with a broken arm. The stories go on and on. Most with happy endings, like mine. Others with devastating conclusions.
“So how does someone recover from something like that? How do you trust yourself again?” I asked my mom, who raised four girls within four years of each other and had her share of near misses.
“I guess like everything else,” she responded. “You put one foot in front of the other, do the best you can, and know that God has his angels surrounding you and your children.”
Life is full of sweet ironies. On the eve of the publication date of my new book, “I Love Being a Mom,” I call up my own mom in tears, confessing that I am not cut out for this job, and blaming her and everyone else for not warning me. But then I look into my daughter's deep blue eyes, and hear my son's laughter in the next room, and I decide not to give them up for adoption to a more fit parent.
I may not be perfect at it, but I do love being a mom. And I pray like crazy.
Originally published on Beliefnet.com. Used with permission of Beliefnet.com.