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What A Fingernail Taught Me About Being The ‘Perfect' Mom

When my husband and I brought our first baby boy home from the hospital exactly 13 years ago, everything was perfect. Then I was felled by a newborn fingernail.
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When my husband and I brought our first baby boy home from the hospital exactly 13 years ago, everything was perfect: the nursery color (a light yellow I had made my husband re-paint after his initial choice turned out to be more highlighter than moonlight), the crib bedding that we wouldn’t actually use for a year, the glider that -- for no apparent reason -- cost more than any other piece of furniture in our house. I had washed every single pure cotton onesie in dye-free, scent-free, everything-free detergent and folded them in neat piles next to our diaper stacker filled with pristine newborn diapers. I had my Boppy at the ready, and my husband and I were freshly educated in CPR, swaddling and car seat safety.

I had spent my whole life studying and acing tests, nailing interviews, and fulfilling the role of the perfectionist, overachiever, people-pleasing firstborn child. My approach to parenthood consisted of the same methodology I had applied to high school, college applications and my pre-childbearing career; I was determined to do it right. The stack of authors on my bedside table (Sears, Leach, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Brazelton, Karp) was a testament to my thorough studying. I had this.

Then I was felled by a newborn fingernail.

baby fingernail
Image: JKönig/Flickr

I had endured a grueling birth that was nothing at all like what I expected after reading What to Expect. I somehow figured out how to breastfeed, no thanks to the hospital’s breastfeeding class. I eventually overcame my fears and could competently change the baby, even though I was sure I might smother him by trying to pull those benign-looking onesies over his gigantic head. I managed to clear all of those hurdles.

But I needed to address his tiny fingernails, ragged and sharp from months in my womb, and I just could not bring myself to cut them. At his second visit to the pediatrician, I first begged the nurse, then the doctor himself, to do the deed for me. “Just this once?” I pleaded. “Let me watch you?”

The pediatrician chuckled to himself. “I’m sorry, but this is one of those things you are just going to have to figure out now that you are a parent,” he said, not unkindly. Then he spun around and left me in the examination room, with my shirt buttoned the wrong way, my maternity pants drooping off my deflating postpartum belly, the baby in one arm, and the other clutching my newborn nail clippers as if they were a carving knife.

I went home, buckled my newborn very carefully into his bouncer and sat in front of him, staring at him as he slept peacefully. I reviewed the instructions in my AAP book one more time, then gingerly placed his tiny fingernail into the clipper and pressed down -- squeezing my eyes shut and holding my breath as I did.

baby gripping finger
Image: CeeKay's Pix/Flickr

Nothing happened. He snored a little baby snore. I’d done it. I totally rocked this nail-clipping thing! So I placed the second fingernail in the clipper and I pressed.

And that was when his eyes flew open, and he started to cry. I looked down, and there was blood on his tiny finger. I had drawn blood.

I dropped to the floor next to him for a second, crying just as hard as he was. I HURT MY BABY. I MADE HIM BLEED.

This was it, I thought. I failed. Someone would be knocking on the door any second to come retrieve this poor innocent baby from his failure of a mother who made him bleed. If I couldn’t get this right, how would I ever get anything else right? How could I raise a whole human being? I was terrible at it, obviously. (That I was also completely sleep-deprived and thoroughly exhausted and I wasn’t sure if I had even washed my hair that week may have affected my reaction.)

Thankfully, babies are like vampires in that they heal kind of magically and quickly. His little fingernail bed stopped bleeding within a minute. I wish I could say my heart did, too. But that was my hazing, I feel, into Parent Club. And the first rule of Parent Club is this: You can research all you want, you can do everything “right,” and you are still, always and inevitably, going to mess up. Fact. And you will have to forgive yourself, because it’s the only way to keep going, and those babies are not going to raise themselves.

baby sleeping
Image: ssstok/Flickr

Thirteen years later, as I grapple with the much bigger problems and questions of having older kids, I look back at that mother, who so carefully trimmed those newborn fingernails, trying as hard as she could to do it perfectly, and I feel nothing but compassion and gratitude. When I despair about how helpless and clueless I feel as a mother of a teenager, I remember that I am going to make mistakes. But my children have a mother who cares for and loves them desperately. I am never going to be a perfect mother, but I hope my love and my effort can be perfect enough.

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