The Cost of Perfection in Motherhood

Apr 22, 2024


When I close my eyes, I can still see the light orange and yellow hues peeking through the open window, casting light on the bubbles overpowering the left side of the kitchen sink.  I can still hear the slow drip from the hot tap, the sound of the tight rubber glove sliding over my mother's smooth hand, and her faint sigh as she peered at the mound of white socks at her feet.

Ever since I was a little girl, my mother spent every Sunday standing at the kitchen sink wearing yellow gloves and holding a bar of sunlight soap. In scolding hot water, she scrubbed every single white sock our family of five owned.  It felt as though she stood there for hours, washing the fragments of our weekly mess from heel to ankle until there wasn’t a single trace of a grass stain or faint indentations from our grubby toes.

I would silently observe her messy hair flopping before her sweaty forehead, trying to blow the pieces that fell before her eyes.  I always admired my mother's strength, her physical tenacity in using all her petite and slender bicep muscles to outwit a stain and her unwavering mental and emotional strength to do this each week. 

My mother passed suddenly when she was 63 years old.  I was 33 with two young children, and although she lived a longer life than most, it felt as though the best and most fruitful years of her life were a short distance ahead.

Mothering without my mother has been the most challenging aspect of my entire life.  Have you ever walked upon a dimly lit path, scared, afraid and alone?  Not knowing where you’re going, whom to call for help, or if you’ll even see the morning light?  The journey into motherhood can already feel very isolating and lonely.  My mother wasn’t there to guide me, tell me everything I was experiencing was normal and that it would pass, and give me a comforting hug when I was feeling overwhelmed. 

Looking back at my pristine childhood, I have the fondest memories of my mother, but many are shrouded in her need for cleanliness and order. Our house was spotless, and everything had a particular place. Each Spring and Fall, she would pull out all the windows, wash them with a wet rag, and use newspaper so they would not leave a streak.

If we left a fingerprint on a mirror, wall, or window, it would disappear as quickly as we left it behind. On Saturday, she would scold us if we walked inside when she was hand-washing the kitchen floors on her hands and knees, and we weren’t allowed inside until they were thoroughly dried. Before sneaking in, I stood on the front steps, swaying back and forth to check all the corners and my mother's careful whereabouts.

From a young age, I knew her obsession wasn’t healthy, as it took precedence over spending time with me outside. I would ask her to come and play, read a book, or watch a movie, and she would always have something to finish. 

When I became a mother for the first time, I found myself in the same habitual cleaning pattern.  Keeping a clean and tidy home with a newborn was the postpartum beacon to the world that I was organized and prepared, but at what cost?  I couldn’t control when my son slept or his development, but I could control the perceived notion and societal standards of how others would judge my success as a parent, which was determined by the state of my home.

She once walked in when Everett was nine months old, and the first thing she did upon greeting us was run her finger across a large frame to see how much dust had accumulated. She looked at me, rubbed her fingers together, and searched for a duster.  I remember saying to my mother, “I’d rather see a thousand tiny fingerprints on the windows and walls than wipe them away because one day, they’ll never reappear’.

When I sat and held my mother's bandaged hands in the ICU a week before she passed, I thought about all those precious moments she wasted scrubbing those white socks.  And for what?  No one ever saw our socks; no one acknowledged the countless days, months and years she hunched over the sink only to soak them again in hot water overnight.  No one commended her when she conquered the reminisce of the sticky thistle when I wore my socks outside. 

It’s not like this Sunday ritual brought her more joy. She hated it. As we got older, she started purchasing dark blue socks for my Dad, and mine became mysteriously grey or black. She was tired of washing away our feet' sins, and then, one day, we all moved away. 

White socks are a mere metaphor for focusing on all the minor stubborn stains that aren’t worth our time or energy because the cost will always be greater than the reward. The perfect white sock and the perfect home or childhood don't exist.  There is always a child observing our statements, our habits and how we spend our time.

Did her obsession with cleaning and a kemp home present a false sense of security that kept her feeling safe and sane?  Perhaps.  We certainly can think more clearly in an organized home rather than in a messy one, but why, as adults, do we then get frustrated when kids are messily playing? 

As a parent of now teenagers, it deeply saddens me to see the shadow of my mother standing at that sink when I walk into my childhood home. My father still has a sunlight bar and yellow gloves underneath the kitchen sink, as he doesn’t have the heart to throw them out.  If my mother had known her life would be short at 63, she would have lit a match and torched all the white socks in the house with a gleeful laugh.

One day, our children won’t be in our homes making a mess, eating all the food, leaving fingerprints on the window or footsteps on the wet floor, and you’ll wish back all the time you spent preserving the home rather than preserving all the fun activities and memories.

What I learned about grief is the importance of spending my time creating uplifting memories with my family or allowing my kids the freedom to enjoy the home we created together.  No one comes over to my house anyway, and if they do, they aren’t going to judge my imperfections because I surround myself with people who don’t even wear socks (or socks with sandals).

If you’ve lost a parent, this number haunts you like a hole in a sock.  Will I outlive my mother and surpass the age of 63, and if so, how will I spend the remainder of this lifetime I have left?  Will I spend time on activities I enjoy rather than feel like a chore, and what memories do I want my children to reminisce of me?

When socks are old, discoloured and worn out, throw them out and purchase a new pair.   Make new memories rather than trying to scrub out the old stains.  Don’t waste your time and energy worrying about how others perceive you, and please, let your kids run around outside in their socks.

Why?  Because they're just fucking socks.



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