If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.