Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Notes From a Napkin


It is 1984 and the lunchroom echoes with the sounds of rambunctious elementary schoolers and their Nike sneakers squeaking against the linoleum floor. I glance across the table as my best friend empties the contents of her brown paper lunch bag. Capri Sun. Tuna fish sandwich on squished white bread. Lays potato chips. Two cookies in a plastic baggie for dessert. The last item is a paper napkin with the words “Sail through your day!” written on it in thick #2 pencil. There is even a crude drawing of a sailboat with some squiggly lines for waves. My friend had learned to sail that summer, so it makes sense to me that the napkin note’s theme is nautical.

I crunch on a florescent orange Cheeto as I watch my classmates open their lunch bags, assuming that every cookie in sight is homemade. I want my mom to be the type of mother who writes napkin notes and makes chocolate chip cookies from scratch, but that’s not her way and I know it already, at ten years old. There is no napkin in my bag because I packed my own lunch. I lick the Cheeto dust off my fingers.

For the next few mornings, I write napkin notes to myself: “Have a great day!” or “Good luck on the math quiz! Love, Mom” with a big smiley face. Sometimes it takes me several napkins to get the note just right, and I nearly miss the school bus because of all my revisions; I dash out the door with seconds to spare, my L.L. Bean book bag heavy with textbooks and a handful of crinkled napkins left on the kitchen counter in my wake.

“Your mom didn’t write that,” my friend accuses me later that week, eyeing the handwriting on my napkin.

My face immediately grows hot and I shove the napkin onto my lap, trying not to make eye contact with anyone else at the lunch table. I take a quick bite of my American cheese-on-white sandwich, even though I am no longer hungry. The wet bread sticks to the roof of my mouth.

I vow that day to be the type of mother who writes her children napkin notes. I can’t know that 25 years from now a good mother will pack cloth napkins because it’s more environmentally friendly.

My mom never used Dreft to prevent harsh chemicals from touching my pristine baby skin, nor did she rock me for an hour before each nap, afraid I would be psychologically damaged later in life if she let me cry. She gave me canned formula and potty trained with M&Ms. She put rice cereal in my brother’s bottle on his first night home from the hospital to help him sleep through the night. We watched TV and ate packaged foods riddled with preservatives. Not every moment was teachable; for my mom, perfect parenting meant well-behaved children with manners. Period.

Mom didn’t try to rationalize her parenting decisions with us; “Because I said so” was perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care what I thought about her when I was a teenager. “I am your mother, not your friend,” Mom reminded me over and over. “But I want you to be my friend,” I’d cry. At 16, I envisioned the ideal mother-daughter relationship as sisterly, assuming that if Mom wanted me to like her, she would cater to my every whim and let me do whatever I pleased.

At my baby shower, I sit on my mother’s white linen couch, my stomach swollen with my first child, while female friends and family members circle the room, sharing secrets of pregnancy and motherhood: sleeping techniques, favorite lullabies, thumbs versus binkies. For the first time I am moved by this tradition, by the way women’s wisdom is passed from generation to generation. I listen eagerly, hungry for any knowledge that will help me be the best mother possible. It is 2006 and the definition of perfect parenting has changed.

The rules are many now, particularly if you have an Internet connection. Food must be organic, toys made from natural materials, and the home environment free from all toxins; the universe is to revolve around the baby, whose needs and wants must be forevermore the central focus of her mother’s life. As a highly educated, 33-year-old woman, I expect myself to do all this, and do it well, my bravado fueled by how easy it sounds. I will be the mother my own was not.

When it’s my mother’s turn, she stands to tell her story. Mom walks across the room and uses her right arm to demonstrate how she occasionally would sprinkle Cheerios into my crib at night to buy herself an extra hour of sleep the next morning. Watching her eyes twinkle as she describes this antiquated technique, I can practically see her coming home from a night on the town with Dad, laughing as she shakes the yellow box and watches the Cheerios fall like snowflakes onto my sleeping body. Mom goes on and describes how I would wake up a few hours later and crawl around the crib on my stomach, picking up and examining each O before popping it into my mouth with surprised delight. Her trick was so effective, Mom laughs, that she started making bottles in advance, too, propping them up on the crib bumper for me to enjoy with my cereal.

The entire room erupts in laughter. I would have laughed too, had I not been that 12-month-old child, abandoned to fend for herself. I picture myself as a baby, hungry in a dark room, wondering where my mother has gone. As I have done many times before, I smile and quietly judge my mother, promising myself that I will be different. I will be better.

Then I become a mother myself. First to a beautiful baby girl and 22 months later to twin boys. Motherhood hits me like a tidal wave.

I am sleep deprived and mildly depressed. I resent my husband. I hate my new body. I run myself ragged trying to be perfect, all the while feeling unqualified to mother three children under the age of two. I am drowning, but afraid to admit it to anyone, including myself. I mourn my lost identity and the many freedoms I once took for granted. I wonder how I had ever assumed that motherhood would be easy.

“You’re making this so much harder than it has to be,” Mom tells me over and over again. “I don’t know what it is about your generation. What did I do that was so wrong you’re trying to fix it?”

Exasperated, she watches me try to breastfeed the twins while my toddler daughter shoves board books towards my face. It’s been days since I have left the house, let alone taken a shower. “You need to get out of the house, honey,” she says. “Get a manicure or something. Something. You can’t sustain this. Give yourself a break and stop trying to do everything. All that matters is that you love your children.”

Listening to her now, I realize that, as a young mother, Mom was much more adept than me at balancing her life. Yes, she bought cookies from the store. But that was because she didn’t have time to make them. She let me eat candy because she liked to eat it with me. She let me watch TV so she could pay the bills in peace. Mom did the best she could, somehow managing to raise me and take care of herself too. She poured those Cheerios into my crib because she was smart, tired, and needed an extra hour of sleep. Maybe if I wasn’t so tired, I thought, I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed all the time. Maybe if I stopped trying to be so perfect I would enjoy myself a little more.

Looking at my mother now, I remember my vow to be better than her. My stomach sinks as I realize that I have judged her for everything except what was truly important. Mom’s tough love resulted in a happy woman with independent children who could pack their own lunches and do their own laundry.  My rigid, child-centric approach was bringing out the worst in me. Maybe, if I wasn’t careful, it would have a similar effect on my children. Mom was strict about things I haven’t had to deal with yet, like manners and curfews.  Now I was beginning to understand why.

“I thought you’d be embarrassed if I wrote you some stupid note,” explains my mom 25 years after that day in the elementary school cafeteria. “I guess I’m a terrible mother,” she laughs. But I can tell that she is hurt.

I watch my mother second-guess herself. We lock eyes briefly before she looks away. I study her beautiful, familiar profile and realize how safe she still makes me feel. How even as an adult and mother myself, I rely on her unconditional love and guidance.

“You aren’t a terrible mother,” I reply. “You’re perfect.” For the first time I understand what that means.

Kate Barry Oliviero resides on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband, daughter, and twin sons. She recently completed a memoir chronicling her experience as a flawed mother in the age of practiced perfection.

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I love this essay. What a powerful picture of the conformity of an affluent middle school in the 1980s! There's a very interesting unstated link here, between the stifling sameness of the 1984 scene and the stifling culture of perfectionist motherhood twenty five years later. Beautiful story of one way that motherhood brought you wisdom and deeper insight into your own mother.
wow, Kate, incredible...I feel like I was in the lunchroom with you. I love your mom even more after reading this sweet memory and you are the best mom ever. I love you!
I can't believe how much this resonates with me! It's universal, if not in the details, in the attempts each generation makes in getting it right, and how we mothers come to appreciate our mothers more as we grow. It was beautifully written, with engaging detail and a great end. I loved it.
What a compelling love letter to your mother and a reminder that we should forgive our mothers and ourselves for all of our transgressions (real and imagined : )).
This is my second reaction to Notes from a Napkin. It's gotten me thinking about howparenting styles change over the years. I'm 71, and when I was bringing up my kids, what mothers were worrying about was making sure that our kids weren't spoiled, as in, "Don't watch TV, your brain will turn into a corn starch pudding!" or "Don't eat between meals, you'll get fat!" I can remember agreeing with my brother that there was nothing more important in our lives than our children, but we had to make sure that they didn't know it, lest they become self-centered and spoiled. Something else parents were discussing back then; you need to raise your kids so you can live with them, and no one wants to live with a whiny, demanding or spoiled kid. We weren't quite at the point of thinking, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," but OTOH, we didn't put up with guff either. Oh my, have times changed! Still, I think my kids turned out beyond my best hopes and continue to be the joy of my life.
This is the first time I've read anything of yours Kate, and it was wonderful. It is a great story, and so true for Moms in general...I found myself fretting over recipes and crafts, trying to be the "Perfect Mom." And then one day I realized, my son doesn't care about what I bake him or what I make him, he just wants to play cars and ride bikes with Mommmy...He just wants me there, and that's what IS important. :-)
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