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Voices: The Perfect Mom

My mother and I are at war -- the kind of war where expletives and the occasional object are hurled, and my mother sobs and I throw my hands up and shake my head and say, "You're not listening to me!" The kind of war we used to wage against one another when I was 15. And 16. And 17 ... until I moved out of my parents' house in San Diego to Los Angeles, to live on my own. I run into my old bedroom, slam the door, and we scream at each other from either side. Everything looks the same in here: my old pictures of friends; the dried roses from ex-boyfriends hanging in the window, knotted with twine; and the skateboard stickers peeling on my mirrored closet doors.

"Open this door!"

"Go away! Leave me alone!"

"You misunderstood me!"

"No, I didn't. I know exactly what you meant. Exactly."

Like most fights, this one started over a simple miscommunication. I had just left Archer, my 18-month-old son, with my parents for a business/ pleasure trip to Austin. Apparently, while I was gone, he slept through the night. He also ate everything put in front of him and was happy and perfect and wonderful and "the most pleasurable human being to be around." His perfect behavior ended the second I came home, when he immediately turned to tantrums and refused to sleep or eat anything other than Cheerios.

"While you were gone, I gave him one hundred percent of my attention," my mom had said. "Maybe that's why he was so good." I took this comment to mean that because I was unable to give Archer 100 percent of my attention, I was a crappy mother and, therefore, my child hated me and refused to sleep or eat or be happy. He would grow up to curse the day he was born because I was unable to be the kind of mother my own mom was for me, the kind who drops everything for her children. The kind of mother who would never even think to leave her family for five days, getting drunk on free booze and rocking out to bands and flirting with strangers in dark, overcrowded bars. The kind of mother who didn't have to work stuff out or rebel against her own life.

I remember only one fight between my parents during my childhood. I thought for sure they would be getting a divorce because I was so shocked to hear them yell at one another. Somehow, my parents had been able to keep from us whatever problems they had with each other, and I never once doubted their perfection -- even as a teenager, when I wanted so desperately to be damaged. I craved heartbreak and tragedy, if only to break free from the sunshine. I wanted to feel emotionally shipwrecked, but how could I under a roof where there was so much love?

"You're lucky," my friends told me. But I wanted to be messed up like everyone else. "I'm sorry that I can't be the mother you are! I'm sorry I am selfish and want to be alone once in a while! I'm sorry that I will never be you! I really am."

"I never said that! I think you are an amazing mother! You're a better mother than I am in so many ways!" my mother cries.

But she's lying. She must be. "You're a perfect mom and I'm just ... I didn't want to come home from my trip. What kind of mother doesn't want to come home to her family?" I open the door and -- whooosh -- suddenly I'm a little girl again in my mother's arms, and all of my worries and fears stream down my face.

My mom raises her hand. "I'm that kind of mother," she says. "There were plenty of times when I didn't want to come home either. That's just part of having a family and being in a marriage. It wasn't all sunshine for me when you kids were growing up, just so you know. I struggled. I got lost. I may have hidden most of it from you, but I know how you feel. I'm sure every mother does."

And suddenly I look at her and I see myself... and every mother and wife, all of us torn between two worlds, tempted to pull away from time to time. We sit side by side on my bed, just like when I was a teenager. I would read her my journal late at night, sometimes until sunrise. "It's a school night," my mom would say. "You need to get up early." But she would stay with me until I was tired, until I had exhausted all my stories. "Archer will be up soon," she warns now. "You should sleep." "But wait!" I say. "I almost forgot to tell you..." So she stays, even though I know she's tired.

I tell her about how scary the flight home was, how we got stuck in a storm, and how I thought we were going to die. "All I could think about was Archer and all the things I would miss. Then I remembered how you told me, when I was learning to drive, to visualize a force field around the car. So I closed my eyes and imagined a giant rainbow around the airplane and I said, I'm so lucky, I'm so lucky, until the man beside me stopped crying and I knew we had escaped the storm."

"You wanted to be home?"

"I did."

I look up at the glow- in-the-dark stars still stuck to my ceiling all these years later and I wonder why my mom hasn't taken them down. Maybe in a way she doesn't want to let go. Maybe neither of us do.

"Thank you for watching Archer."

"Thank you for coming home."

And we hold hands, two silhouettes in the window I used to climb out of in the night, plotting my escape into the adult world.

From the book Rockabye, by Rebecca Woolf.