Last week, I chatted with my Great Aunt Lydia about her life, raising kids, and what she remembers looking back. You last met her here. She’s 91 years old, lives in Manhattan, had a thriving career as a nurse, running her own department at Lenox Hill Hospital, a top hospital in Manhattan (where Beyonce and JayZ’s sprog was birthed, no less).

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.

So I’m starting with my beloved Lydia. 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.

Before I publish part 2 of this interview…coming soon!…I plan to muse on my definition of a role model. Though I’ve never thought of myself as a role model, maybe thinking more about this can be a source of strength. What do y’all think?

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