Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Dread and Chocolate

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"You're the best mommy I ever had," my daughter told me the other night as we snuggled together at bedtime.

Which got me thinking about her past-lives mommies. Did they send her to the dungeon when she misbehaved, make her hunt and gather from dawn to dusk with no break?

All in all, I, the mother in this life must be doing okay then. She gets plenty of attention and caring, and I have no expectations of her earning her keep through child labor.

Her validation, though, was nice to hear, not because I doubt my mothering abilities, but because she's invoked alternate mothers before. There was the time she told her preschool teachers, "My real mommy lives in Hawaii and lets me have chocolate pudding for breakfast." Because the one she has now does not.

And while we had a good laugh at that one -- picturing the mom with the lei and the grass skirt serving up hollowed out coconut shells full of chocolate pudding at breakfast time -- I did question why she might have needed to conjure up a fantasy mother. Was her own mainland mother in need of some culinary leniency?

* * *

Oy, the complicated mother-daughter relationship. I've read books and embraced philosophies, yet mostly I maneuver by gut instinct. Like any job or relationship, I want mine to be stellar and award-winning. I want to leave a positive and indelible mark on humanity. What I'm aiming for is, oh . . . I don't know . . . perfection?

I will admit to times of almost obsession with being the Perfect Mommy. I don't mean striving for Martha Stewart crafts or picture perfect snacks, but rather aiming to be emotionally faultless. A compassionate, calm Mommy who ebbs and flows with the mood of the child, doling out just the right amount of assistance and support, discipline and control, yet never shortchanging her on the love. Noble goal, but unrealistic when you take into account sleep deprivation, PMS, low blood sugar, traffic, and everything else that gets in the way of the ideal.

"Bad Guy! Bad Guy!" she'd cry when I wouldn't budge on book limits at bedtime or insisted the sand in her hair had to be washed out. (She hadn't learned swear words yet and that was the meanest epithet she could come up with.) Now that she's older, she can articulate her feelings and lets me know when I'm coming down too hard. "You hurt my feelings 13 times," she told me once. And more than once I've heard, "You don't have to say it in a mean voice!" which my former middle-school students might empathize with.

* * *

The scream in the middle of the night bolts me awake. "NO, Mommy. Don't do it!! No!" she cries out. Is it me she's dreaming about, the best mommy she ever had? Or is it one of those mothers from her past?

"What? What did Mommy do?" I nudge her awake.

She mumbles something I can't make out. I know I shouldn't, I really, really shouldn't, but I wake her again. I must know what transgression transpired. "What happened in your dream?"

"I'm not going to tell you," she mutters, as stubborn in sleep as she is during the day. I'm not privy to this awful thing I've done in her dream that I could correct to perfect our mother-daughter relationship, which seems pretty good so far, but you never know. This could be a clue to what she needs from me, but now she's awake, doesn't want to talk about it, and I can't get her back to sleep for an hour. I, Patient Mommy, anxiously await morning, when maybe she'll tell me. I will definitely ask again. I am truly becoming Obsessed Mommy.

Gently, after the alarm rings, I say, "Have any dreams?"

"No," she shakes her head.

"I think you might have had a nightmare," I prod her. "You yelled, 'No Mommy, don't do it!'"

"Oh yeah," she answers. She remembers! I brace myself for the evilness that I've committed, the key to what this dream might bring to light. "There was chocolate sauce on my arms, and I was going to lick it, but you washed it all off with a warshcloth!" And she giggles, actually laughs.

That's it? I think. Sleep lost over this petty crime: removal of chocolate without consulting wearer of chocolate. I always tell her that I like it when she comes home from school dirty, messy, covered with paint or mud. That it means she must have had fun. I'm not the mother for whom she must keep clean.

Since I only have a minor in psychology, I ask my husband and a couple of friends what they think it meant. None of them are dream analysts, and I make sure not to ask anyone who will say, "Well, what did it mean to you?" What it meant to me is that I'm a paranoid, overly analytical mother who just needs to trust that I'm doing the best that I can. And she'll turn out okay. Or not.

Yet, in the off chance it was a literal nightmare, I vow to let her clean up her own melted chocolate messes and to never, ever wipe chocolate off her arms.

Because, you know, she is the best daughter I ever had.

Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.

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