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Motherhood Amnesia

By Liz Alterman

My mother has a chronic condition. It may be genetic because as years pass; I believe I have it, too. It’s a disorder that starts gradually and builds over time. Once it’s got you in its grip, very little can be done. As I share the symptoms, they may sound familiar.

In my mom’s case, I began noticing signs, hints that something was off, about 17 years ago, around the time my son, Sam, turned three. 

One Saturday evening, my mother offered to come over to watch Sam so my husband and I could go out to dinner.

We appreciated it, especially because our lively tot had two settings: circus clown who’d just crushed a case of Red Bull and blender with the lid off.

When we left for our outing, my mom looked like her usual vivacious and well-groomed self.

“Go! Go! Enjoy!” She shooed us out the door, her voice strong and energetic. 

But when we returned just a few hours later, we found her passed out on the sofa snoring as if she’d just spent a week at Burning Man. 

When she eventually sat up, her hair was plastered to one side of her head. She was missing an earring and looked haggard. (Think Keith Richards at the end of a lengthy world tour.) 

“What happened?” we asked. 

“Oh, you know, Sammy and I played a few rounds of hide-and-seek. Getting all the way up to the attic is quite a workout! Then, he reorganized my pocketbook.” She gestured toward the floor where the contents of her purse lay scattered — lipsticks here, coupons there — as if she’d fought off a mugger.

That night I walked her out to her car, thinking, Well, she’ll never want to do that again!

And yet somewhere along the 11 miles of wooded, winding roads that separate her house from ours, she forgot everything. By the time I called to make sure she’d arrived home safely, her voice had regained its perennial perkiness.

“Well, I just had the best time!” she gushed. “Why don’t you make plans for next Saturday night? I can’t wait to see Sammy again!”

When I hung up, I told my husband, “She says she wants to come back next week.”

“Did she fall in her garage and hit her head?” he asked.

That’s when I made the diagnosis: My mom suffers from motherhood amnesia. 

This seldom-discussed but very real condition enables mothers, grandmothers and even godmothers to forget all those less-than-perfect moments, and remember only the good times.

If forgetfulness is the first sign of this condition, putting a positive spin on any and all kid-related hijinks is a strong second.

“Did I tell you Sam suggested we play Go Fish with my credit cards? That child is a genius! So creative!” my mother would exclaim. Then, to ensure my father didn’t overhear, she’d whisper, “Let me know if you see my Visa card, I can’t seem to find it.” 

For days after her visits, we’d uncover items Sam had “borrowed” — her reading glasses stuffed between couch cushions, her hairbrush buried at the bottom of the toy bin, her bracelet in the belly of our DVD player.

Still, she kept coming back — thank goodness — even after we went on to have two more equally energetic boys.

“This is the highlight of my week! You have no idea how much I look forward to spending time with those little angels!” she’d insist before lowering her voice and adding, “Let me know if you happen to find my driver’s license. It’s missing.”

I began to recognize the signs of motherhood amnesia in myself about a decade ago when my children entered school full-time. 

Alone in my minivan, I’d drive past the playground and remember the sun-dappled days my boys and I spent there playing catch, savoring picnic lunches, petting friendly dogs. Giggles and the cheerful chirping of robins supplied the soundtrack to our blissful afternoons. In these visions, I see us skipping home together happier than a family at the end of a Subaru commercial. 

I have no memory of the meltdowns that ensued when I forgot to pack their juice boxes and Goldfish crackers. I’ve erased the images of my brood whining and pouting the entire walk home after I refused to let them visit the ice cream truck an hour before dinnertime. 

No, my boys never behaved like that. Thank goodness.

As Sam prepared to head off to college last fall, my affliction became more acute, and I sensed all the not-so-great moments dissolving, fading like old photographs. Distorting the facts has emerged as my most aggressive symptom.

Though it wasn’t that long ago, I’ve already reimagined Sam’s college application process. 

Instead of recalling the way my son stomped down the stairs like a Clydesdale and said, “Here! You wanna read this essay? I wrote it while watching ‘South Park,’” I envision him confidently gliding into the kitchen, with a polite, “Hi, Mom, I know you’re busy, but if you have a sec, would you mind taking a look at this essay? I used strong verbs just like you taught me!”

In this new, revised version, my dialogue, too, has changed. I don’t bark, “It’s 10 p.m. Let me guess, this is due at midnight? Why do you always wait ’til the last minute?” 

Instead, I say, “Of course, I’d love to read it. Shall I make us some tea?” 

Much the same way we’re able to block out the most painful parts of childbirth so we’re willing to do it again. I’ve come to view motherhood amnesia as a survival skill.

The maternal art of forgetting and embellishing eventually gives way to full-blown revisionist history, making our experiences bearable, better, perhaps more beautiful. 

What causes motherhood amnesia? I believe it's spurred by unconditional love. 

I’m fairly certain there’s no cure for it either. 

— Liz Alterman

Liz Alterman is a journalist and humorist whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Parents and more. Her humorous memoir, Sad Sacked, was released by Audible Originals last year. She is the author of the young adult novel, He'll Be Waiting, and her domestic suspense novel, A Perfect Neighborhood, comes out with Crooked Lane in July 2022. (Photo credit: Gracemarie Photograph)

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