Let’s face it, motherhood is a wild ride. Personally speaking, it’s taken me a while to find my groove. So many developmental stages. So much to consider — when to discipline, when to let your imps fly free. Which battles to fight and which to let go? There are countless books and “experts” touting the “right” way to parent – Be a Tiger Mother! No, that’s wrong! Attach to your kids like a plastic suction cup! No, that’s helicopter parenting! — that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused.
When my nearly six-year-old son was first born, I joined a new mother’s group, hoping to meet women going through the similarly exhilarating and terrifying experience of raising a child. I will never forget what the group leader said — a mother who’d raised two children of her own. She said “If there was only one way to raise a child, they would have written only one book.”
That stuck with me. The fact that there are countless many ways to raise a child, and in the end, it has to feel right to you.
I’ve sought wisdom from older mothers – real women, who have done the hard work of raising their children into adulthood, and who have emerged from the trenches with rich perspectives to share. Women like my Aunt Lydia, my mother and my mother’s friends.
It’s their stories and their experiences that can serve as a guide or a mirror, to help us find our own way as mothers.
And it’s their stories and perspectives that I’ll be sharing in these pages, over the coming months.
BE A ROLE MODEL
Last week, I chatted with my Great Aunt Lydia (pictured on the left, holding my newborn daughter, with my own Papa in the background) about her life, raising kids, and what she remembers looking back.
You last met her here. Lydia is 91 years old, was born in Queens, and today lives on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Raised by a Polish family, she’s the oldest of three children, and has 2 children of her own — Ned and Louise.
Though her greatest wish was to become a doctor, but since she was a girl, her parents sent her younger brother to medical school instead.
Still, Lydia enjoyed a thriving career as a nurse, graduating top of her class from Teachers College at Columbia University. She eventually ran her own department at Lenox Hill Hospital, a top hospital in Manhattan (where Beyonce and JayZ’s sprog was birthed, no less).
Her husband died when Lydia was in her sixties, forcing Lydia to go back to work and become full self-sufficient. But you’ll never hear a word of complaint or regret from her.
Lydia is positive, but sensible. Kind, but not a pushover. Warm-hearted but firm. Open her cupboards, and you’ll find rows of neatly bound folders and albums that contain a life’s worth of information and memories. Step into her home on her birthday and you’ll be overwhelmed with bouquets of flowers and hundreds of cards. She has a magnet on her fridge that says something like “Each day, let me be a blessing to someone.” And use is — both at the end of people’s lives (she’s helped countless friends through the dying process) and at the beginning (she met my two children, as babies, with the genuine love of the archetypal mother).
In short, she’s a gem.
I launched Been there, done that, because I think we all need to hear from older women who’ve been through it all, and can share wisdom that’s gained about mothering, wife-ing, working and just having a full life. These wise souls can serve as mirrors, helping us reflect on our own journeys as women and mothers through the prism of their triumphs, their regrets and their overall perspectives.
Starting with Lydia would, I hoped, be grounding. I wanted to know if Lydia had struggled at all with motherhood, and if so, what she’d learned. My commentary in italics are alongside our interview.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in raising your children?
When I finally had Louise (her daughter), I immediately bonded with her. She was so wide-awake and looking at me with those big eyes. There I was on a stretcher being taken back to my room and Ed (Lydia’s husband) and I had said we should both work…but at the end of three months, I couldn’t leave Louise. I said I can’t leave her with a stranger, she’s so precious and so wonderful. So that was a struggle. We had to adjust to one income. And we did manage to get through financially.
I promise you, though I dug, I could not get Lydia to admit to one psychological struggle in raising her children. This either means she’s perfect, too old to remember, or belongs to a generation of women who never complain. Either way, I was both stumped and impressed.
But that didn’t dissuade me from trying to dig for more…
Did you ever face self-doubt in raising your children?
When you are a student nurse you rotate through every department in the hospital, so I spent time in the pediatric department and I became aware of some of the hazards, like choking. But it really goes back to the way you were brought up. That’s why we talk about role models. Like Louise says to me, “You were such a wonderful role model for me.” And she and I are so much alike that we’re almost like twins. We get the same thoughts at the same hour. I would be thinking of her and she would call me the next minute. But it all depends on your own upbringing, how you treat your children. You pick the things you like out of the way you were brought up.
(This is a tough one for me. I love my mother endlessly, but I always wanted a mother who spent her free time baking chocolate chip cookies rather than being glamorous in Manolos and skinny jeans. Today, I appreciate my mother for who she is, not what I wanted her to be. And I suppose motherhood is learning to accept ourselves for who we are — even though our children may yearn for someone different. Because I’ve realized I’m not the ideal mother I wanted either. I love my children, but I can’t spend every moment down on the floor with them building towers out of blocks or pretending to fight Superheroes. I don’t think it hurts children to be reminded that we’re human, with our own needs. The trick is, letting them down gently and kindly, which I sometimes fail at….)
In those days, the father was the head of the family, and the mother was the one who ran the home and took are of the children. With that kind of an attitude and approach – for example, if I had some children here visiting with Ned (her son) and Louise, I would let them do anything in the house – run around in every room, jump on the beds, they did all kinds of activities – but then I’d say, “It’s almost 5 o’ clock, kiddies, let’s straighten up the home, Dad’s almost home and he works very hard so we want it to look nice when he comes home.”
We ate family dinners every night. And those were valuable times that determined how everybody’s day went. Today, everybody is eating at a different time but it’s really important to have that meal together several times a week. It’s a very close, on hand experience.
Tell me about a mother you truly admire.
There really hasn’t been any mother that I have truly, truly admired. Pas moi? Sniff…. I’ve been disappointed in many mothers these days with the ways they handle children. They don’t have any discipline, for one. And they throw things around. Like they might open some chewing gum and throw the paper on the floor. Um yes, you obviously haven’t witnessed little B throwing her chicken nuggets on the floor each night…
There has to be more discipline introduced. Mothers need to know what they’re doing, have a nice attitude about it, developing all sides of a child and recognizing problems and working towards the mind the body and the spirit.
How did you balance the needs of your two different children?
I asked this question because I find it difficult to give my full attention to both the boychild (6 in July) and Miss B (2 and a bit) at the same time — they both need such different things from me. I sometimes feel like my head is exploding between their two different needs. Do any of you ever feel this way?
Louise was like a little mother towards Ned. She was so helpful. If I wasn’t around, she was in charge looking after him.
It’s all a matter of being fair and using your judgment as to who’s right and who’s wrong, and sometimes it has to be one way and sometimes it has to be another way, to be fair. Ed and I liked to sleep late on Saturdays and she would come knocking at the door and Ned would be right behind her and she was taking care of him the whole time we were asleep. She was so good. They were only a year-and-a-half apart.
I always had a lot of kids around in the building or if it was winter or in the playground, mothers thought I was a teacher because all the kids came to me and we played in the park and we did different things. I helped them learn to jump rope, or maybe we were outside in the playground and I’d say, “Today we’re going to pretend there are enemies, so you have to crawl low” –- we had all kinds of games, and those kids just loved me.
Is there anything you would have done differently as a mother?
I think I did a darn good job. When I did go back to work, I picked someone who was very much like me –– was loving and kind, like a grandmother. She would say to my mother, “Your daughter is an angel, the way she works and treats them and runs the house.” I did things naturally and did the best I could and I enjoyed my kids at every stage.
When Louise got older, we got her a credit card to Bergorf Goodman, and she made some mistakes and we laughed at some of the dresses she bought, but she learned how to dress herself. I see her in the morning and I tell her “Oh Louise, you look beautiful. You look like you just stepped out of a band box.” Everyone at work thinks she dresses so beautifully, the way an executive should dress. So you provide experiences at every level. They keep growing and you keep advancing your role with your children. I’ve never been disappointed in Ned or Louise. Little things – like I wish Ned’s handwriting was better – but you can’t really complain about that.
Did you ever have issues re: trust with your children when they were older?
I would want Louise home at midnight. Louise never…really we never had any bad fights, no, we didn’t. She just she just felt that we were a good pair, mom and daughter, we had a good relationship and I would try to explain the things as best I knew as a nurse.
My kids have never really disappointed me as far as any aspect of their leaving home. We would scold them – like when we gave them a car in college and said they had to share a car – and I remember Ed said to Ned, “I don’t want you to drive that car until you read the whole manual and you will call me when you are finished and I will quiz you on it.”
And Louise still says, “Mom you are my role model and I love you for what you have done for me all my life.” We discuss our problems – she will tell me her problems even at her age – she’s going to be 60 this year – can you imagine? We communicate every Saturday or Sunday and we talk for one hour. I talk to Ned twice a week. We’ll just have a chat – he’ll say, “Is anything bothering you mom?” – and I’ll say “Is anything bothering you?” – so it goes on all your life.
I think that I was strict enough, and yet I gave them rein and they responded appropriately and we worked out our problems and I always followed the rule – take care of their problems when they’re small. I remember when Louise was in high school and didn’t understand a problem in math and I said “Let’s go see the teacher,” and the teacher said, “Oh, I didn’t know you didn’t understand,” and from then on Louise kept on her math skills and she almost got an 800 on her SAT, and her whole career was in math. If parents let those problems get by, they get bigger. I think just doing that one thing got her over the hump and her whole career turned out to be in maths.
You have to observe, diagnose and take appropriate action. And be consistent every day.
What’s the worst piece of parenting advice you ever received?
I can’t say that I ever got any bad advice from anybody about parenting – everyone thought I was doing a very good job with my kids. Ned and Louise, they were proud of me. Like when I was head of the PTA at the school, kids would say, “Your mom is the president!” They were so happy that their chests just stood out.
As a matter of fact I even met with the school because the children weren’t making the scholarship school across the street –– so I said there’s something wrong with the curriculum that no child ever made the scholarship school. And I’m so proud, because when I read in the church bulletin that six children made the school, I felt happy that I was able to do that.
Or when I told the Latin teacher, “You know all the kids hate your Latin course. They’re not enjoying it — you ‘ve got to change the course and make it more at their level.” He did. I did things like that. When I went back to work, they were proud of me at Lenox Hill and I became the director of my own department. I did things to make them feel proud of me.
Do you have any other thoughts about parenting that you’d like to share?
With my nursing background, I think in terms of goals – and the goal of a mother is to develop the mind, the body and the spirit of the child. You have to be a role model to reach those goals, a teacher and a disciplinarian – you are dealing with the mind, the body, and the spirit of the child.
You have to have one hand on – guidance and values – and the hand that’s off is to allow the child to become an individual and to grow.
I naturally smile. I naturally am comforting. Just hug and touch your child, and encourage him and praise him. But you have to constantly be aware of their growing needs as they grow.
It was a tremendous experience. I know we’ll always be close. We’re family forever. And I just like that feeling that we did this, and it was a lifetime of work, and I think it enriched us and it made us more understanding people too.
She makes it sound so easy. How I appreciate the practical wisdom embedded in her words.
At times I’ve been so terrified of sending my children into therapy that I’ve second guessed myself. Was I too harsh that time I forced my son to go to his tennis lesson when he didn’t want to? Too much of a pushover when I acquiesced to his demands for a third round of snacks in bed?
Since becoming a parent, I’ve had to establish routines, which don’t always feel easy for someone who fed off spontaneity and adventure for so many years. I haven’t always been so great at setting consistent rules. It’s not in my DNA.
But being a role model — that’s an idea I can fall back on, gain strength and renewal in — when my parenting resources seem to be running dry.
How about you? What do you think about or fall back on when you need a parenting boost?