I see her as I walk my son into the front door of the preschool. She walks ahead of me, guiding two children by the hand. Gauzy pink wings float behind one, an intricate hat and cape perch atop the other's head.
Homemade Halloween costumes, I think to myself, my mind spiking defensively to the Target special Spiderman outfit that my son is bringing to school in a bag today. He probably won't even wear it -- he refused this morning to put it on, and I couldn't see the sense in trying to force it. If it wasn't fun for him, then what was the point? Although it would have been nice to get a picture. I bet she will get great pictures this year of her two kids... But, I say to myself, I have a baby, what do people expect? Into the building we go.
Her hair from behind is dark and shiny; a Pantene commercial. A rich brown with warm auburn highlights. She speaks patiently to one child, sends the other one to her classroom. I wish I were more like her!
I walk my son to his classroom and explain to the teachers that he won't wear his costume. We smile. Maybe they can get him to wear it; and maybe not. If he were the only child in the costume parade to walk around the circle, sulking in his Garanimals and sneakers, it would not be a surprise to me. He does not appreciate doing things for other people's reasons. I can't fault him for that. I am exactly the same.
On the way back out to the car, I pass her coming the other way, face-to-face this time. I almost stop walking just to stare. The look in her eyes... she's haunted. Suddenly I can see it. She stayed up all night to finish that costume, and all she can see are the imperfections. She remembers her perfect mother who she wishes she could live up to, or she remembers her imperfect mother who she is striving every day to do better than. Whatever she does, it is never enough. Another day come and gone, and she is exhausted. And empty.
It was in that moment, one breezy Halloween morning, that I was converted. Then and there I let go my stranglehold on the "shoulds" of motherhood. I knew that I would pass on the complicated crafting and baking. I knew that I would serve store-bought cake and my kids might never wear a homemade costume in their lives. On picnic day I would be the one who signed up to bring plates.
And I began with a new convert's zeal. I began to reevaluate everything I did. I always made Christmas cookies. This year? No! The world has enough cookies. The world does not need my cookies. Once I broke one "should," I was shattering them right and left. And it felt good.
I know that I was projecting my own thoughts onto that mother at school on Halloween morning. I know it is equally likely that she felt buoyantly happy and was just a little tired from skipping her morning coffee because she wanted to do 5am Bikram Yoga instead. But there was a truth to that haunted look in her eyes, and I knew that if I didn't get off the crazy Should Train, it would carry me along with it.