They're only houseplants

It started with the ficus.

Never the most robust of houseplants, the ficus on my stair landing had started to look dry and yellowed. Once glossy leaves lost their luster.

I need to water that, I thought when I noticed it.

And then I moved on to the math homework, or the office job, or the seemingly endless task of teaching my 7-year-old how to tie his shoes.

A week or two later, I noticed it again. I walk by the plant a dozen times a day, and I always see it, I suppose, but I rarely notice it.

But now, I noticed it. Half its leaves had dropped onto the floor, dead and dry as dust. Its twigs looked skeletal. The remaining leaves clung to their branches like aspen leaves at the end of autumn — like one stiff breeze would send them all skittering to the ground.

I need to water that, I thought.

And then I moved on to the laundry, packing lunches, discussions with my 10-year-old about nonsensical English language spelling conventions.

Soon, I noticed the spider plant in the dining room was wilted. Its long slender leaves were drooping sadly. Some of them were already brown and dried up.

I need to water that, I thought, kicking myself for letting my houseplants wither under my care.

And then I moved on to dinner, or Facebook, or laughing with my kids at the latest knock-knock joke to be making the rounds of second grade. I may have cleaned the bathroom or found the latest lost shoe, but I did not remember to water the plants.

Then I saw the philodendron in the family room. It was in bad shape. Its vines were black, its leaves fallen off. Dust and even a few cobwebs had accumulated in the pot, a pot that was already chipped and cracked and had even been Super Glued back together after a kid had knocked it to the floor. The poor philodendron. It deserved better.

I should have watered it, I thought for the hundredth time.

I used to take fastidious care of my houseplants. I’d water them, but never too often. When they got dusty, I’d rinse them gently in the shower, or wipe their leaves with a damp cloth. I watched them bloom. I’d carefully transplant them to larger pots to accommodate their growth, and I’d clone their excess stems so I could make more houseplants for my windowsills and end tables.

But now? What kind of nurturer could I possibly be if even the houseplants under my care wither and die?

At that thought, I put on the brakes. That line of questioning is a trap. It’s the trap of believing modern moms can’t succeed unless all of their ducks — good jobs, clean homes, perfect kids, happy husbands, home-cooked dinners and healthy houseplants — are in a perfect row. It’s the trap of magazine covers and TV sitcoms that shame us into thinking all of those things matter equally. It’s the trap of self-expectation that leads to self-hatred when we fail to live up to what it seems the world expects of us — or maybe just what we have been taught to expect of ourselves.

I’ve fallen into that trap often, and I’m tired of it.

Here’s the truth: We can’t do it all. And in my house, the houseplants are the first victims of me being spread too thin.

And you know what? I don’t care.

I’m not less of a mother because my houseplants can’t survive a few weeks of neglect. I’m not less of a person because I forget — in the face of the everyday chaos of life — to water my plants.

I am more of a mother because I choose to spend my time on math homework and shoe-tying lessons, rather than caring for the ficus. I am a better parent because I’d rather laugh at knock-knock jokes than fret over the life of a philodendron.

(The philodendron is dead, by the way, but the ficus is still hanging on by a thread. I’ll try to water it tonight.)