Perfect – Motherhood and Brain Injury

Article published in Summer 2012 Mamalode Magazine

“You aren’t scheduled for an appointment today.”

Stunned and confused, I left the chiropractor’s office, walked back to my car, and wondered, “Maybe I’m supposed to be getting my hair colored and cut today?”

Two hours later, after visiting the hairdresser and my cognitive rehab therapist–neither of whom had me scheduled for appointments that day, I walked into the nurse’s office at my son’s elementary school. “Mommy! I didn’t think you were EVER coming to get me!”

What kind of mother forgets where she’s going when she’s on the way to pick up her sick child from school?

Not the kind of mother I cared to be. But, ever since a careless driver crashed into the back of my car, I’d been floundering in a state of endless confusion and chaos. Living with a brain injury tormented the perfectionist inside me.

My children were the driving force behind my determination to regain my abilities. I saw the ripple effect imposed on 8 year-old-Andy and six-year-old Cassy. Their sense of security was replaced with uncertainty. Routine and structure rapidly disintegrated into disappointment and despair. No longer able to trust that I’d remember the important details of their lives, my children were forced to become more independent. On their own, they assumed the responsibility of becoming my short-term memory. Their safe and carefree home had transformed into a complex maze that required constant navigation.

How did we survive the upheaval? We laughed our way through those tough times. Not because our circumstances were funny but because the consequences of my cognitive challenges were absurd! Every day was a comedy of errors.

My vocabulary constantly got jumbled. Most of the time, I didn’t realize what I had said. I told my son to comb his ear, yelled at my husband to put his clothes in the hampster, and introduced myself to my daughter’s teacher as Cassy’s father.

The first full meal I cooked after my injury still makes my family chuckle. Meat loaf, baked potatoes, and green beans, previously a typical menu, was now a special occasion. My son remarked, “Mom, why is the meat loaf so tiny?” My daughter said, “Cute!” My husband asked, “How do you shrink a meat loaf?” Until they commented, I hadn’t noticed the meatloaf looked abnormally small, nor could I offer an explanation until the next morning. When Cassy opened the microwave to cook her instant oatmeal, she screamed! Staring her in the face was a pound of raw ground beef, sitting in a pool of its own juices. While defrosting the meat, I had clearly scraped the outer, defrosted layer of hamburger into my mixing bowl and forgotten to retrieve the remainder.

Adjusting to a new way of living was painfully hilarious. Since cooking was so challenging for me, particularly at the end of the day when my brain battery had drained, and my planning and decision-making skills were impaired, my cognitive therapist made a couple of suggestions to lighten the burden of cooking supper. “Once a week, warm-up a can of soup and serve it with a sandwich for dinner.”

I gasped, “Campbell’s soup isn’t a meal–it’s an ingredient!”

She offered an additional suggestion. “How about letting everyone be on their own one night a week? They make whatever they want to eat and clean up, too.”

I gasped again. “I can’t allow that. The kids’ll eat cereal and my husband will make popcorn.”

Even my mother gave me helpful advice. “Lois, you don’t have to vacuum the entire floor each week. It’s okay to vacuum just the traffic areas.” I smiled at the irony: Mom’s vacuuming policy must have changed when she started doing it herself!

It wasn’t always easy for me to see the humor when I was trying so hard to do things right and still getting them so very wrong. I laughed on the outside, but on the inside I mourned the “perfect” mom I once was and critically judged the “imperfect” mom I had become.

Twenty years after my brain injury, I asked my adult children if I could interview them, sort of like a research project. I really wanted to know how my disability had affected their childhoods. I was touched to learn their perspective of my brain injury: it provided them with front-row seats at a live comedy act!

Cassy told me, “Sometimes you made me nervous because I never knew what you might say or do. But, my friends loved you!”

I feared that I hadn’t done enough for them. “Did you feel your needs were met?”

My son summed up their feelings in a few sentences. “Mom! We had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. What else is there? Get over it.”

I’d expected my children to resurrect at least one of the many times when I disappointed or let them down because I forgot to do something they asked or be somewhere on time. But they didn’t. (Neither did they compliment me for keeping an immaculate house or for being a great cook!)

I sat there, dumbfounded, questioning whether or not they were holding back to spare my feelings.
As I marveled at their responses, an old memory brought forth a new realization. When they attended their first brain injury support group meeting with me, Andy was sixteen and Cassy was fourteen. Both were asked, “How has your mom’s brain injury affected you?”

I still shudder at Andy’s initial response. He said, “I think my mom’s brain injury was for the best.”

His response captured everyone’s full attention, “How so?”

“Well, knowing my mom the way I do, without her brain injury she would have been a CEO for some big company and traveling all the time. Because my mom had a brain injury, she was always home for me when I needed her.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the meeting room. My son’s heartfelt affirmation proved it: The most valuable mom is one who’s available. She doesn’t need to be perfect—she just needs to be there.

The irony of the perfect mom is this: she’s not anywhere as valuable as the imperfect mom. The imperfect mom is human and blesses her children with permission to be human, too.

Twenty years later, my family was still laughing about my mishaps. Andy, then a 28 year old, called me from his dental appointment to ask for a ride home because he was too loopy from the anesthesia to drive. I told him, “I can leave in ten minutes, after I take a load of clothes out of the dryer.”

Just as I was walking out the door, the dentist office called. “Mrs. McElravy? Your son asked me to call to make sure you’re coming to get him. He just had a flashback from his childhood when he waited two hours for you in the nurse’s office at school.”

I heard Andy howling in the background. “Please tell Andy it’s a good thing he asked you to call me,” I said sweetly. “I was just heading out … to the chiropractor’s office.” 🙂

Article Signature:
Lois McElravy is a keynote speaker, humor expert, and brain injury thriver. Lois works with individuals and organizations who want to learn how to use humor and laughter to adjust to change, bounce back from disappointment, cope with the unpredictable, and feel happy in the midst of trying times.

©2012 Lois McElravy, Lessons from Lois – Permission to reprint or repost this article is granted by including the above byline and Lois’ contact information.