The Mother’s Day Poem I Never Got

kids drawing copy

“My mommy is the best because she always cuddles me when I’m sad!” the brown bobbed-haired little girl in the pink skirt read. “She’s as pretty as a butterfly, as sweet as a bunny and as smart as a fox.” Laugher gave way to thunderous applause, as the little girl left the microphone and a boy in yellow approached.

I had been looking forward to this day for weeks. It was the annual Mother’s Day school picnic at the beach, and each child had prepared a special poem for his or her mother, complete with colorful borders and self-drawn portraits of their Moms. The comments were funny, insightful, and inspiring:

“I love my mom because she makes the best pancakes.”

“My mommy makes me clean my room even when I don’t want to, because it’s good for me.”

“My favorite thing is when my Mom takes me on bike rides, even when she’s busy.”

“Mommy always has time to play with me!”

With each passing child, I became more and more excited for my own son’s turn at the mic. What would he say he loved about me?! Would it be the game nights on the floor, the bedtime prayers, the silly voices, the evening hikes? How I bought him a puppy with all of my birthday money, how I help him comb his hair in the mornings? How does an 8 year old boy notice my love for him? I couldn’t wait to hear! Would he embarrass me? Make me cry? Of all the things I do, which ones mean the most to him? Anxiously, I scanned the line of adorable first and second-graders, looking for my sweet boy’s place in line.

That’s when I realized he wasn’t in line.

He wasn’t leaning against the wall with the other kids in his class. He wasn’t cueing up at the mic with his poem and artwork in hand. He wasn’t even back in the hallway where I had left him. He wasn’t anywhere.

Immediately I was on my feet, one twin on my hip, the other by the hand, stepping out of the row and scanning the small building for my boy. It didn’t take me too long to find him, huddled on some chairs in the back, wringing his hands and crying. My husband, who was supposed to be manning the video camera for the presentation, knelt on the floor beside him instead, cell phone waving.  I could see the frustration on Greg’s face as he pointed at the phone and spoke in animated whispers to our firstborn. Before I reached them, however, his teacher caught me by the arm.

“Your son was absent yesterday when we worked on these,” she whispered into my ear. “I told him he could just say a few things into the mic, but since he isn’t prepared like the other kids, he won’t. I’ve asked him 3 times now, and all 3 times he said he just doesn’t want to.” Suddenly, I understood. The trip to Children’s hospital for my daughter’s surgery consultation yesterday.  The missed hours of school. The other kids with their colored pictures, him with none.

Realizing the situation, my husband had apparently jumped in with his cell phone at the last minute, trying to get our boy to make a short list of “nice things to say about Mommy.” But I already knew before I reached them that he wouldn’t want to read from a cell phone if everyone else was reading from a colored paper. Our boy struggles with some pretty hefty things, you see – significant anxiety disorder – something which, I’ve learned, is passed on through families like brown hair or blue eyes. A gene we can’t scold or cheer him out of. A battle he’ll have to face and fight his whole life, simply because of his genetics.

I put a hand on my worried boy’s leg as I approached him, and wrapped my one free arm around his back as soon as I could. He buried his head in my neck and I could hear the tears in his distraught little voice. “Mommy!” he whispered, “I just don’t know what to say! I need to THINK! I don’t have time! And I’ll feel so silly if I read from a phone and none of the other kids do. I just don’t know what to do!” he gushed into my ears.

Another child behind us read, “My Mommy is the greatest gift of my very whole life,” and the audience sighed together in one collective “Awwwwww!” And I realized – this was it.

This was my moment.

What kind of mother would I be today?  Force my son to choke out a few endearing lines, drag him to the mic choking back tears, send him up there feeling conspicuous, just so that I could have my poem read?  And for what – would that really be for me? Or would it be for the other women sitting in the crowd, who had spotted the commotion, the other women who would ask me later, “Why didn’t YOUR son read anything?” What did I need to know from him that I don’t already know, somewhere inside my heart?

It’s true. I admit it – I wanted to hear that poem. I wanted everybody in the room to hear that poem because I am so darn proud of my son. But there was more, I realized with a start. I wanted to be like the other “kids” too (do we ever outgrow this feeling?) I wanted to have my great parenting moments recognized, I wanted to clap and cheer for my own darling child on the stage. But as I looked at that same darling child, clenching his fists in desperation, I already knew what mattered most.

“You don’t have to read anything, sweetie,” I whispered back to him.

“But Mommy, no! Then you will be sad! Then you will be the only Mommy who didn’t get a poem!” he hissed in earnest.

“It’s okay,” I insisted, “I don’t need a poem. Just come back, come and sit by me.”

“But won’t you be sad?” he pressed me.

I took his rough hand, chapped and red from all the times he washes it in a day, when he starts to feel anxious about germs. I squeezed it tight. I looked him right in his fearful dark brown eyes, and said, “Sweetie, I’m just so happy to be here with you. I don’t need a poem. I’m just happy to be your Mommy, and be here with my boy.”

I know he believed me because the relief flooding his face was visible. “You just want to hear me sing, then? It’s okay if I only sing songs with the other kids?”

“Absolutely!” I insisted. “That would be perfect.”

We walked back to our row of chairs, hand in hand. He sat beside me nervously, while all the other kids in his class stepped up to the mic one by one and read their poems, and while all the other mothers in the class beamed and giggled and blushed, exploding with pride. Several times, he looked at me sideways, checking my face – was I really ok? Did I lie to him? Was I terribly disappointed in him? So I smiled the most reassuring smile I could muster, for him. And as we sat there side by side, anxious mother and anxious son, listening to accolades of happy and playful mothers, I made a decision: I will write my own poem. I will write it for myself, right then, right there in that maroon plastic chair.

I love my Mommy because she doesn’t make me read poems up front when I haven’t had enough time to prepare one, I began for him, in my head. But there was so much more…I love my Mommy because she understands me. She knows when too much is too much. She doesn’t force me to be something I’m not. Sometimes she gives up things she was excited about, things she really wanted, to do what’s best for me instead…

Isn’t this motherhood, really? Isn’t THIS – this constant readjusting and always acquiescing of what we had planned, what we had really wanted – isn’t this motherhood?  It’s a thousand times a week of putting someone else before myself. It’s adapting and letting go and changing again, and again, and again. It’s the hopes and the dreams and the disappointments and the failures lined right up beside those moments of forever whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” It’s knowing that a child’s little heart matters more than what anyone else thinks, what anyone else says, or what anyone else wants – including me.

I am, actually, as pretty as a butterfly (like, maybe one of those brown spotted ones?) and I’m certainly as smart as a fox, but no one in the room will ever know it because I am MOM enough to see what my little boy needs. And that’s my poem. That’s enough. Happy Mothers Day, to me.

But there was more poetry still to be written that day.

Later, after the singing and clapping were over and everyone was scrambling for the deviled eggs and brownies on the potluck table, another mother caught my arm in line. She is one of those gorgeous moms: long, thick black hair cascading over her trendy sweater, crystal clear blue eyes set in a perfect porcelain face. “My daughter is so sad that your son is moving away,” she told me, “Sometimes at night she even cries about him leaving!”

I felt surprised.  “And do you know why she cries?” she continued, “I asked her once – wanna know what she said?”

I paused. Of course I wanted to know. “What?” I answered.

“She said that she’s so sad your boy is leaving, because he is the one person who always finds her on the playground when the other girls are being mean to her, or when someone’s leaving her out. Your son – he finds her, and he makes sure she comes and plays with him. He makes sure she’s always included. Thank you,” she squeezed my arm.

“Thank you,” I said, “for telling me. I had no idea.”

She walked away and left me there near the taco salad, my heart swelling with pride and gratitude for my thoughtful, sweet son, for his kindness and his character. Her words were my poem today – my second poem. And they were enough. More than enough, actually. Better than all the poems together.

After lunch I found myself down on the beach, reclining against a driftwood log with the other mothers, scanning the shoreline for our own.  The kids played together in driftwood forts, they scooped sand into buckets and threw giant rocks into the water for epic splashes.

Suddenly I saw my boy approaching. His cheeks were red from running to the tide pools with his friends, his blonde hair sweaty in the hot afternoon sun. He strode confidently up the embankment to me, smelling of beach and boy and summertime, and held out his hand in front of my face. “Look at this, Mommy,” he beamed. In his palm I saw one single white rock. “It’s the whitest rock on the beach. I think it’s the whitest rock I’ve ever seen in my life!” he exclaimed. “It’s for you, Mommy. Keep it!” He placed the rock in my palm, and smiled at me before running back to his post as captain of the fort.

He left his friends during a day at the beach…for me? To bring me the whitest rock on the beach. I rolled the rock in my hands, feeling its edges, feeling all our edges together – mothers and sons and daughters and families – all the sacrifice and all the pain and all the joy. I slipped the rock into my pocket. I will keep it. It was my poem today – my third poem. And it is enough.

We are enough.