Mucked up Mothering

When my memoir — “After the Flag has been Folded” — was first published it was given another title: “Hero Mama”. (We didn’t understand at the time that men will only buy books titled Hot Mama.)

There had been a good deal of flak over the title. I had wanted “After the Flag” but my editor was worried about making it too military.  This decision was made in 2004, long before the general public understood what a folded flag meant.

The title “Hero Mama” was a subtitle I had tossed out. It comes from a moment when I passed a three-story tall statue of a peasant woman in DaNang. They call her Hero Mother. She is the bronze memorial to all the women who lost husbands, fathers, son and brothers during the American War in Vietnam.

I was struck by the fact that the people we regarded as enemies had the humanity to recognize the loss that women make when war is waged. At that time we had no such national memorial to women in this nation. Most of our memorials are dedicated to men warriors. Mama is a warrior woman in her own right. She walked through hell on earth and survived. There’s something to be said for that, even if she didn’t do it particularly gracefully.

Telling people’s truth — or even your own — can be costly.  There are family members who no longer speak to me as a result of the book. Family members who never read the book but condemned it anyway. One of my father’s sisters said to me during one of our last phone calls, “Why did you name this book ‘Hero Mama’? Your mother’s not the hero — your father was.” Newspapers in Tacoma and Portland trashed the book, saying if anything, my mother was abusive and I was less than honest of a writer to not admit that.

My own mother said to me, “You could have written a much worse story.”  That statement alone reveals a lot about the way my mother views herself.

It’s true. I come from a long line of women who have failed at this motherhood gig. At times Mama has been an awful mother. There was too much drinking. Too much honky-tonking. Too many pills. Too many nameless men. Too much gambling. Far too many guns. And far too many harsh words exchanged.

No one was harder on my mother over the years than me — the teenage daughter — well, except for maybe her. During one particularly heated argument during my senior year of high school, my mother blurted out, “I know you wish I had died instead of your father.” Those words still bring tears to my eyes — not because they hurt me but because I have a better sense of the hurt that caused her to hurl them.

Mama felt inadequate.

She still feels that way, all these years later, even after she managed to get her children raised and out of prison. Even though she had a long and profitable nursing career. And even though all of her grandchildren have risen up to honor her and the Lord she loves.

Mama still feels like she’s failed us and God.

I know how she feels because I’ve mucked up mothering, too.

True. I have not made the mistakes my mother made.  I’ve made my own. Where my mother was absent, I was hovering. Where my mother was silent, I was too forthcoming. Where my mother was distant, I was too emotional. Where my mother was too serious, I was too flippant. Where my mother was always working, I was always working.

Working is how the women in our family justify everything else we fail to get right. I see that same thing in my daughters now and it makes me wince. They will learn it the same way I did — the hard way.

When my son was speaking to me — something he hasn’t done for months now — he would often chide me about how my readers don’t even know I have a son. (Feeling inadequate isn’t solely a female trait in our family). When a child, any child, any age, quits talking to you, it makes you dwell on your failures as a mother.

Before my children left home I sat each of them down and asked them what were the greatest ways in which I hurt them growing up. I wanted the opportunity to apologize to them for those wrongs, real or perceived.  My son told me the worst thing I did to him was make him eat chicken spaghetti. It was a particularly awful recipe featured in Southern Living. What I didn’t understand, what none of us understood then, was that our greatest hurts as a family hadn’t happened yet.

I read these blogs mothers write about raising a family and I remember the worry I felt over things like should a bunny be part of the Easter celebration. I remember the trauma of t-ball and track seasons, where the coach’s kid always seemed favored, unless you were Tim’s son and then you were cut just because you were the coach’s son and he didn’t want to be accused of favoritism. I recall the late-night talks Tim and I had about which teachers the kids would get, what church offered the best opportunity for growing their faith, whatever were we going to do about that sex-ed class. (Now Tim says he’s ready to pay the kids to have sex to give him a grandchild.)

I want to tell these young mothers to be kinder to themselves, and to their kids.  I want to tell them to quit worrying so much.

Just accept that you’re a failure as a mother. Maybe then your children won’t be so disappointed in you when they figure it all out for themselves.

The untested can afford to be self-righteous.

For all the rest of us, there’s prayer.

And the most valuable scripture lesson my mama did pass along to me:  “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” I Peter 4:8

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  • Debbie Derrick

    Thank you Karen once again, boy did this hit home, my mom passed away 11-1-1983 and since then I can’t stand mother’s day, even though I have two great daughters. I think I carry the guilt of not giving my mom the best Mother’s day presents or being a good daughter, although I know better I still hash that around at this time of the year. Thank you for sharing yourself and feelings, happy Mothers day to you, prayers for all of us!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Debbie: Thanks for sharing. I think this is a hard day for a lot of women for a lot of reasons. Whether that’s guilt or grief or both, or longing and memory. I tell my girls all the time that if weren’t for me they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. 🙂 I’m hashing around with you for various reasons of my own.

  • Rose Marie Morton

    Karen, you just helped me remember something. I made an effort to not act like I knew everything when raising my teenagers, at least to let them know “Hey, I’m doing the best I can with the knowledge and skills I have at this time.” It seemed a better approach than the dictatorial way my mother talked to me, which was often a yell before I finished my sentence and an immediate gravitation to the most negative way to perceive whatever I had said. Yes, it’s Mother’s Day and I love my mother and try to bring her the joy she deserves at age 87 after supporting her family through times of trouble. But my brother, sister and I all agree and have been trying to overcome how we were yelled and screamed at during our formative years and in our 60s we all still feel emotional pain from it. This all said just to explain why I did try to listen to my children. Yes, I made mistakes and later said a lot of “I’m sorry” and gave lots of hugs. I think letting your children know how much you love and value them as people and lots of prayers for guidance as we stumble along will eventually lead us in the right direction as Mothers.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Rose, thanks for sharing a bit of your own journey as a mother here. I used to tell my kids to keep a journal — it would save them thousands in therapy bills down the road. 🙂

  • Sharon O

    This is a great post.
    When my children became older I said to them, “someday you may end up in therapy and if you do I will pay the bill because you are most likely talking about me.” I wasn’t the perfect mom, nor did I have one. Mothers day was never high on my list my husband knows to downplay it and not go ‘all out’ because of Hallmark. Mothers day is every day, when they call you for no reason. When they give you a small flower just because, when they present you with a new born grandbaby, when they trust you to watch their children, when they tell you they love and respect you without words or cards or other sentiments. Mothers day is everyday your heart breaks when they make wrong choices as adults and you stand in the sidelines and pray. A mothers heart is always stretching and maturing.
    My mother used to say to me growing up, “You will never get in the way of my happiness”. As if a child would want to do that. I swore I would never say or do anything like that to my own. Mothers day is every day we fall on our knees and thank God for the gift he has entrusted in us, to be mom’s and grandma’s and wives who share the Lord in whatever we do. It is not about us, it is about the story we are sharing. God Be with you, as you leave a legacy.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Sharon: So glad this post spoke to you. I have known a few mothers who have not allowed their children to get in the way of their happiness, only to find out later that the happiness they chased after eluded them. Your last words about thanking God for the gift of children is spot on. Thanks for sharing.

  • What a beautiful post, Karen. I want your son to know that when we spent time together and talked about your children, we connected most deeply talking about our boys. I have not been a particularly grand example of maternity myself, particularly given the amazing example my mother set, but what I always know and remind myself of is this: I wasn’t perfect — am not perfect — but there was and is never a moment that I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs without blinking. If I could ever know that they KNEW this one thing, that would be my own mark of success.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Having met your wonderful mother, I know how blessed you are, girl. Thanks for the words of encouragement. Blessings.

  • This is the type of Mothers you get ,when a young Mother is attempting to deal with the death of her young husband, trying to educate herself to support her family without family support , without church family support, desserted by the military her husband was serving.Hopefully we have all learned a lesson from this.Do you know of a young Mother needing help , support, advice, love of the church family, just a helping hand? what are you doing to help?

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      That’s a good word, Mama.

  • Karen, sometimes I am really hard on myself and get down on myself. Then, when I am grumpy and mad at myself, it just perpetuates my problems because I become irritable and say things I regret. Your blog today helped to turn that tide and reminded me that, yes, I will make mistakes, but that my love for my girls makes a big difference. I was talking with one of my teenage daughters today about sex – a not too uncommon conversation topic now that she has a boyfriend. I also told her about reading your blog and accepting my failures as a mother. She very lovingly replied, “Your not a failure as a mother. If you were, I would have had sex already.”

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I think one of the greatest gifts my mama taught me is just exactly what I Peter says… love will cover the multitude of sins. Without question we are going to say and do things that hurt our children. But the one thing I always knew, even when she wasn’t capable of saying it, is that my mother loved me — all of us — deeply.
      That didn’t always make things easy for her or for me but it helped us to forgive each other when necessary.
      It’s hard, this parenting thing. Whether you are married or not. It’s just plain hard.
      I Peter 4: 8 gives us the grace we need to get through.

  • “The untested can afford to be self-righteous. For the rest of us, there’s prayer.” Now, that’s truth if I’ve ever read it.

  • And from the other side of the aisle… Yesterday, I called my 104-year-old Mom and wished her well. She was a single Mom for 8 years in the 30’s with my oldest brother. Somehow, living under the microscope of condemnation back then, she made it through, she and my Dad found each other, and my other two siblings and I came to be.

    Many years ago now, a woman named Jann Mitchell used to write about family issues in the local paper. In one column, she penned these words as advice to Dads when a teenage daughter in the family was in her most difficult years: When all else fails, love their mother.

    Well, there was a whole decade in there where it felt like all else was failing. And many times it felt like we could do nothing right with this kid of ours. But the one thing our daughter was never uncertain of was how much I loved her mother and herself as our child. Thank you, Jann, wherever you are, for invaluable advice. Not that I ever thought of doing differently. But it was most reassuring to hear such simple, wise words echo on days when when we as parents felt hopelessly overwhelmed and worn out.

    When all else fails, love their mother.

    Maybe men don’t buy books titled Hero Mama, but one has and thanks you for it as well as your author’s wishes penned inside. The title is unimportant. It’s the enormous price paid by your family that gave rise to the story in the first place. To you, your siblings, and especially to Mama Shelby, our prayers for the grace and peace of God.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      They raise ’em with good stock in Nebraska, AF. Love that your mama is setting the pace for the rest of us.

    • Jann Mitchell

      Hi! This is Jann Mitchell, now living in Sweden and still writing, and delighted that something I wrote helped you. Find me on Amazon, with more to come – plus my work with AIDS orphans at

  • Gloria

    Karen – Knowing how amazing each of your kids are I know that no matter what mistakes were made or weren’t made, you and Tim have found a way to parent that works! I know because your kids have been an influence in my kids lives in such a positive way and as you know, my mistakes have been huge and many! I love you!

  • It’s interesting how every family really is messed up in some way. If you look long and hard enough. Which likely is not necessary. Thanks for sharing as you do, Karen.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Yeah, don’t have to look hard around here, Ted.

  • Debbie

    This was very very good…my mother was a nightmare stemming from her childhood nightmare and I am sure there are days when I am just pure hell on two hot legs…trusting Love covers it all. I loved that little quote AF Roger.