When I was 12, my mother was my personal superhero. I watched her swish her cherry red cape as she vanquished the ghosts behind the closets or scared the monsters hiding under my bed.

Every night, I watched my mother wash, iron, and hang her cape neatly at the back of her wardrobe, polish her tiara, park her red boots by the side of her bed, and tuck her bodice in her silk knickers under her nightie, ready to put it all on in a moment’s notice, if I called.

I knew she had the power to make anything and everything in my world right again.

Mom was my superhero who was there to fix everything and protect me. She had a lifelong warranty and I was sure nothing could ever go wrong with my superhero until the day she made me wear the most hideous itchy white dress from hell for the most boring but important religious ceremony of my prepubescent life.

How could she do this to me? my inner voice spat vehemently at the woman, sitting resplendently in her Sunday Best.

I so badly wanted to scratch my armpits and neck but doing that in front of the whole congregation meant I would be confirming my eternal damnation at 12 years old in front of God, the Priest, Mom and the whole world.

“No, no, no, it’s not itchy at all. Here, feel it,” my mother had said on that Saturday afternoon, “It’s the perfect white dress, honey!”

Now as I sat, kneeled, stood, sat, kneeled, stood, in no particular order, the growing realization that mom had lied to me consumed me. I started to see her as less than a superhero.

The first crack in her shiny outfit had started to show. I noticed for the first time her tiara starting to look a bit tarnished, her cape just a little faded and stained, and her bodice – outdated and musty.

As my teenager wings grew, so did the list of things mom did wrong. She said the wrong things, cooked the wrong things, laughed the wrong way, picked out the wrong clothes, and took us on the wrong vacations. She made wrong decisions and I made sure she knew I knew.

“Not allowed to go to a party? Lucy’s mother is letting her go! You’re the worst mother ever!”

“I can’t have a boyfriend? I hate YOU! Why do I have a mother like you?”

“You’re grounding me? You are so mean!”

Throughout the next few years, every situation became a new reason for me to file her under a different P, for pathetic. Her cape, boots, tiara and bodice started collecting dust, now all piled in a heap under her bed because I stopped calling for her.

She wasn’t a superhero. Who needed a superhero mom who had the audacity to drag me Christmas shopping one day when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed, listen to my CDs, and talk to my friends on the phone?

I sulked as I watched her withdraw all her money to pay bills and go shopping that afternoon. Armed to the teeth with Christmas presents, we stood at the check-out as mom reached into her bag for her purse. I saw her face change to a strange ashen hue as she rooted in her handbag desperately but there was no purse.

Everything became a blur as we retraced our steps over and over again as I watched my mom look at every crack and crevice on the tiled floor of the mall.

We rode home in silence without the presents and no money. Mom went straight to her room and locked herself up. I had never ever seen mom like this before; lost, hurt, desperate, and so worried.

As I listened to her cry that whole day, her cries tore through my very soul. The depths of her despair – of a woman figuring out how to pay the rent, the groceries, the electricity, or the water bill.

I never knew a mom, my mom, could break until that day.

I knocked softly and called out, “Mom?”

She did not answer but her sobs fell silent.

“Mom? Please… you haven’t eaten anything all day… Please open the door…”

When she finally opened the door, she smiled weakly and said, “I am so sorry about Christmas, for your brother and you, honey…”

It was incredible to me that even at her most vulnerable and desperate, even at her most broken, her worst mothering moment, my mother only had one thought – my brother and me.

This should have been the perfect moment for me to toss her superhero outfit into the incinerator once and for all but funnily, I now saw her with new eyes. She had never taken the cape off at all.

“Mom, it will be okay,” I said as I crawled into bed with her that afternoon and wrapped my arms around her, “It will be. You’ll get through this, you always make things right somehow.”

I dug the cape from under her dress and pulled it out, as only her child could and used it to cover us as we held on tight to each other that afternoon. 

I realized then that mom needed me as much I needed her.

Sometimes when a mom breaks, she only needs her child to help fix her cape, just to remind her of the superhero she really is underneath all of life’s turmoil.