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What Makes a Real Mom, Anyway?

As the not-technically-adoptive guardian/mother of a 9-year-old girl (it's a long story involving several trips overseas, numerous court appearances, bedbugs and one rat bite), I am hypersensitive to the nuances of the term mother. Most of the time I am simply "Mom." Occasionally, I am "Mommy," but always there is the shadow of the real mother, the one in heaven, the one who is loving, kind, and gentle all of the time. The one who never loses her temper, or gets exasperated when she hears "coming" seven times as bedtime is delayed 20, or 30 minutes longer– the mother who is perfect and can never make a mistake.

Honestly, I know we all lose our tempers with all our children– adopted, birth, foster, step– I've got most of those categories covered. But most of the time we are comparing ourselves to other flesh and blood parents– the birth mom of our step-kids, our own moms, the mothers of our children's friends. Actual human beings who also get exhausted and flare up inappropriately, or curse, or say the dreaded words, "Because I said so!" My first son, the one I knew so intimately because I carried him around everywhere I went for 9 months before he was born, once confided that he and his friend compared notes on which swear words their mothers had said the day before. Interestingly, he never said them to me; they were like rare coins, to be collected and shared, but not spent. I found this comforting– that his friend's mother also swore on occasion, and that he didn't feel the need to shock me with his knowledge.

But, as Mother's Day approaches, and I select and send a card for my own mother, I find myself wondering how I compare to my daughter's image of her own mother– a girl really, only 20 or so when she died. My daughter was a baby. She can't possibly remember her mother, she's just an ideal. So how does she reconcile this angel mom in heaven with my sometimes inconsistent actions? Sometimes I am the good mom who takes her shopping and listens for hours to her fears and concerns, who makes her favorite foods and sleeps in her hospital room for every surgery. Other times I am the bad mom who gets frustrated with the messes a 9 year old can create, who isn't always as patient and kind as she'd like to be, a mother who sometimes even argues with Dad to resolve differences. I think these two Moms can be scary and upsetting for a child who has been told her real mom is an angel in heaven.

How can I possibly live up to the ideal mom, and is it even healthy to try? Or is it better, necessary, really, for her to have a mother who is struggling, who doesn't always get it right, but is always trying to be a better person, a better parent– a mother who is more real than her real mom?

Therapists tell me that this is alright, that children need to understand that people can express a variety of emotions, and that it's ok to have these feelings. Children need us to express a range of emotions and even have constructive arguments so they learn that it is okay for them to feel, and argue, and work through differences. This is called Emotional Regulation, and it's important for all children to learn the skills which enable them to deal in a healthy and appropriate manner with a range of emotions.

There are ways to improve our kids' emotional regulation, including labeling the emotions, putting them into words, and connecting the emotions to preceding events. We can also validate our kids' emotions, rather than minimizing them, and provide a nurturing environment where feelings are discussed and accepted, not minimized or denied.

In addition to modeling good behavior, for example, by not overreacting when our own patience is tested, it's important to set limits and to have ground rules which set boundaries so that emotions are expressed within safe limits. One of our ground rules is, "In this house, there is no hitting." That means kids don't hit each other and parents don't spank children. This rule provides a very concrete and crucial foundation for a child who came from an orphanage where physical punishment was used to enforce the rules.

For me, being a mother, in all its forms, has been a lesson in how to be a good person. Having a child's life dependent on me 24/7, 365 days a year, means that I am always trying my best to be a good role model, to do what's best for my children, whether it's eating healthy food or counting to 10 before I react to something outrageous. Do I always get it right? No, but I do usually know when I've made a mistake, and vow to be more patient next time, or spend more time playing games instead of cleaning up.

Being a mother is such a non-stop, round-the-clock job that in some sense it seems silly to carve out one day a year to "celebrate." On the other hand, it's good to have one day in the year when we acknowledge the work of momsWho could object to a day where adult children are reminded to send thoughtful cards of love, and where my daughter is planning a day at the spa?


By Liz Smith. Liz has worked across the globe for many of the world's best known apparel brands, including Justice, Chico's, Victoria's Secret, and Hanes. She has worked closely with dozens of factories in more than 20 countries to ensure that production is of the highest standard. Liz has managed all aspects of garment production, from design through fabric development to sewing and merchandising - so she knows what it takes to make high-quality apparel. Liz is thrilled to share her knowledge about clothes to help discerning customers choose the finest products.