Every morning before school, I beg. I plead. I implore.
Then, every morning, I kiss my 8-year-old's head as he heads off to third grade rocking some concoction of neon -- but woefully mismatched -- athletic wear, two different socks often of two very different heights, half-brushed bedhead hair, and his huge, bright pink backpack.
His teeth might be brushed.
"Tell them your mom tried!" I call out after his disappearing form as he rounds the corner toward the school, my voice faltering at the end because I know I am really just talking to myself. I marvel at his cocky swagger. He has no idea that he looks a little bit ridiculous.
My middle schoolers pile into the minivan and I strap the preschooler into her seat. My sixth grader cares about his appearance, but his thick hair rarely complies with our attempts to tame it. My eighth grader, unfortunately, mistakes a lack of hygiene for taking a stand against conforming to societal norms.
"Did you even brush your hair?" I ask him with a bit of horror in my tone as I look at him full-on for the first time that morning.
"You should be happy I am not obsessed with my hair," he chides.
I pause, staring at the lanky man-child in my passenger seat. His shorts aren't as long as he would like because I have scoured the mall and the Internet for shorts that can reach his knees but not swallow him whole at the waist, but there aren't many options for a boy who looks much like a baby thoroughbred. His cowlicks make his hair a daily adventure. He has a cut below his lip from his second-ever rendezvous with a razor blade.
"There's a difference between being obsessed and, you know, basic hygiene," I sigh, not even trying to hide my resignation. Just tell them your mom tried. Please.
I still remember my first day of middle school when I wore white quilted pants and a sleeveless rainbow striped collared shirt from Ups 'n' Downs -- in Florida, in August of 1985. I'm not sure I forgive my mother yet for letting me wear that ensemble. I'm trying hard here not to let my kids do the equivalent here in 2015, but it's not as easy as it should be.
When you have four children, people assume you are either incredibly organized or an incredible mess, and I fear that when I open my minivan door at school pick-up in the afternoon and a dirty athletic sock and a used juice box fall out onto the sidewalk in front of the safety patrol, it reveals on which side of the spectrum I (spectacularly, not at all gracefully) fall. My kids eat hot lunch at school. They wear whatever was in their closets -- or, let's be honest, whatever is clean in the laundry basket piles I haven't bothered to put away in their closets - for school picture day, because I never know it is picture day. They refuse to wear jackets when it is cold, and their teachers won't let their classmates go out on the playground for recess because my children aren't dressed warmly enough for winter in Florida. As they stagger out of the car into the 44-degree air, I mutter under my breath, "Just please tell them your mom tried."
By the end of the school year, I am a desperate woman crawling toward the finish line, just hoping nobody gets creative and throws a random dress-up day at me. I have made more mad-dash trips to CVS right after drop-off for [candy, party plates, napkins] than I can count. One morning at the end of last year, I parked innocently in the preschool parking lot only to watch every other 2-year-old walking into the building holding their parents' hands while dressed in their pajamas for an apparent Pajama Day I forgot. I apologized to my own, decidedly unpajama-ed 2-year-old, stumbled back to my minivan, placed my head on the steering wheel, and cried.
Your mom tries, children. I come to all your school performances, even if I am not always completely on time. I make your lunches - though usually only on days you have "special" lunch and don't actually need a lunch from home. I buy you every book I can at the actual book fair, even if I miss every single monthly Scholastic order form due date. I buy pumpkin carving kits every year and never get around to actually carving pumpkins, I use store-bought cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve most years, and I bought you the cutest sheets and comforter sets once, but almost never have the matching sets clean and on your beds at the same time.
Your mother never did get the whole Lego set storage thing down, so once you build those suckers and then tear them apart within minutes later...well, you have a really, really big bin of random Legos to use for more imaginative play. Those posters I bought for you and meant to frame for your room? Well, they sit near the school pictures I never took out of the familiar envelopes on the counter in the dining room I always mean to clean out. But I bought them. That counts for something. I try.
It's true that early release days at school mess your mom up. I have forgotten to pick you up on those days a few times (whose idea was early release day, anyway?), and maybe once or twice I pulled up to the school on two screeching wheels still in my pajamas. Giving birth and breastfeeding for ten years straight takes its toll, you know. But I would have been there exactly on time if it was a normal day. And I often wear gym clothes and don't make it to the gym, it's true. But I always try.
I hope that maybe, just maybe, you see your mom trying, and often, you see your mom coming up short... but sometimes, you see your mom succeed, too. I hope you see when I get the job done right. I hope you see when I plan the perfect vacation, when I manage to have the snacks you love actually on hand, when I pull off the exact birthday cake you asked for, or when you open your presents on Christmas morning and they are just what you hoped they might be (minus the iPhone 6 Plus and the guinea pig, sorry about that). I hope that you see that the house is often a mess, and the sheets don't match on your bed, and the laundry is never, ever (ever) done, but that those things don't actually matter at all anyway. And no matter whether I'm on my game or an hour late for school pick-up on the $%^#* early release day, I still dust myself off and get up in the morning and do it all again. I want you to see that, too.
That's what it's all about, after all: the effort and the ability to keep on trying. I hope that when you fall and when you fail, and when your own children go to school with half-brushed hair and mismatched clothes someday, you'll remember me and how I made imperfection perfectly normal.
Until then, please, tell everyone that your mom tried.
A version of this essay originally appeared on The Mabelhood.
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