What I Learned From My Mother About Parenting

There are people who have those “WWJD?” bumper stickers on the back of their cars asking people to consider “What would Jesus do?” as they make decisions both big and small in their everyday lives. Some have rebranded this to include “What would Oprah do?” and plenty of people stop and consider “What would Mom do” once they become parents and are now in the beautiful, petrifying and privileged position of raising small humans. These mothers recall the ways that their own mothers raised them – the way they did everything from handling the pain of skinned knees to broken hearts, or the amount of patience they showed when answering countless little questions about the stars, bedtimes, and vegetables; to how much grace they exhibited when answering the bigger questions about things like the birds and the bees, the importance of “No means no”, and death.

Owen at 1 1/2

Owen at 1 1/2

I am no different than any of those women. I am constantly asking myself “What would my mother do?” when situations and questions like these arise. The only difference is what happens after I answer that question: I do the opposite.

I have done my very best to not only avoid emulating how my mother raised me, but to figuratively run in the other direction. My home environment during my childhood was a culture of fear – our hardwood floors may as well have been covered in eggshells. There was a constant and heavy blanket of loneliness that was wrapped around my shoulders. While the words “I love you” were stated frequently, the reminders that this was just an empty phrase or based on conditions that were apparently rarely being met were constant. My mother used to tell me that “I love you because I gave birth to you, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you” while I was still in Elementary school, and my father informed me around my fourteenth birthday that “I love your mother more than I love you – I chose her, you just came along.”

Me at two years old

Me at two years old

She would make me sit alone in my room for hours on end when I was the age my children are now, with no explanation beyond telling me that she “couldn’t stand” me anymore. When I would come home from school a few years later with my heart or ego bruised from an argument with a friend, instead of comforting me, her first question would always be, “Well, what did you do wrong?” When I had to stay home from school on the occasions that I was sick with a fever or Strep throat, it was always made clear to me what a huge inconvenience it was to her and I was once again relegated to my room. I wasn’t allowed to watch movies or television because as she put it, “If you’re too sick to go to school, then you’re too sick to watch TV.”

And I believed her. I believed that it was my fault that she didn’t like me and that it was okay that my father told me he loved her more. I believed that I was a “bad girl” and an inconvenience and must have done something wrong to have a friend shun me. I believed all of it because I didn’t know any better. Because mothers have your best interests at heart and know what’s right and what’s best for you…right?

But that none of that means that I never learned anything from her about parenting. On the contrary, she taught me more than I could have expected.

She taught me the importance of saying “I love you” and meaning it. Not just at the end of phone conversations, or to accompany the kiss at the bus stop or at bedtime; but any time – and without strings attached. Not only do I constantly tell my kids that I love them when they do something silly or wonderful or perfectly “them”, but I periodically reinforce and remind them that no matter what they do – and even if I seem temporarily mad at them for, say, emptying a container of uncooked rice on the kitchen floor, I will always love them and that there’s absolutely nothing they could do to make me stop loving them.

Parker at 1 1/2

Parker at 1 1/2

I have done my best to replace that blanket of loneliness I had draped on my shoulders with superhero capes on theirs. At four and five years old, I think children should be able to feel a sense of invincibility, of the endless possibilities of the world, rather than the obstacles. At their age, I think they should know that there will always be a set of arms outstretched towards them – to catch them, to hug them, to let them feel safe when they awaken from a bad dream.

And rather than shutting my children out, I do my best to keep that line of communication constantly open. I ask my daughter about a difficult day at school with curiosity but without judgment, so she is free to be honest about how she feels or why she did something without fear of punishment. Together we come up with solutions to how she can make better choices or handle things differently in the future.

And it has not been easy going through this parenting journey without my mom. I often have moments and days where I turn to my husband and say, “I want my mom. Just not my mom.” But just as my father succinctly put it more than twenty years ago, we don’t get to choose who our relatives are. We can only look at both their strengths and weaknesses and choose to take what we want and leave what we don’t. There are valuable lessons in both.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’m learning is that the most important question I need to start asking myself is “WWID”?

What would I do?

 This post was originally published on the Huffington Post as a part of their Mother’s Day series.

Comments

  1. says

    Love it. Made me think. Today I ACTUALLY said to kian “I love you and will always love you but REALLY don’t like you at ALL with how yiure acting”. Only I said it REALLY meanly. Feeling the guilt now, of wondering WHAT that does to him? Ugh. Mothering sucks. Until it doesn’t. Love you.

    Xxo

    Ps didn’t get to “recap” tues nite! Need to get the MO on each gal and who they are and mean to you (but for Wendy of course–who I already KNOW who and what she means. She’s awesome). Xxo

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Erin says

    I just wanted to thank you for your honesty in this blogpost, and let you know that you are not alone. I have a very complicated relationship with my own mother that over my life has caused me great pain. She was never physically abusive to me, but she is a person so entangled in her own pain that she often can’t see past herself and her own needs and therefore inflicts great pain on others. This has been true since I was little, when she blamed me for hurting her, when I was child, simply when I went through phases like wanting to spend some alone quiet time or wanting to hang out with friends. She took these things personally and has for years reminded me that she doesn’t believe that I love her. I often felt, even as a child, that I had to be the “bigger” one, the stronger one, and I don’t want my two daughters to have to feel that way. I look upon mothering as the greatest privilege I have ever been blessed with, and as much as possible I want to channel that recognition into the way I mother. I don’t lose myself in my girls, but whenever I am with them I try to be mindful of what they need and where they are at. At 3 and 8 months I am their world, but over time I will share that spot with other things and other people, and I want to celebrate that journey of growing with them.

    I just feel a bit of solidarity with you and I wanted to let you know that, and to feel encouraged. We can overcome past pain, past obstacles. We can break the cycle. Sometimes it means spending less (or no) time with the person who caused that pain. Mostly I try to hold on to the love I feel for my own Mother, and myself, and let the other stuff go.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you!

    • says

      Thank you so much for sharing this with me here, Erin. While I’m sorry to hear you had a similarly damaging relationship with your mother, I happy to hear that you are making those conscious choices and changes I am attempting as well for the benefit of our children… J.

  3. says

    I love this so very much! I have a 4 month old and it took me until I was 32 years old to tell myself that I could be a good mom, even though I never had an example to follow. And it has been hard and there are times where I wish I had a ‘mom’ to be here with me & guide me.
    But because of my childhood, I learned to be strong. I learned all the things I can do myself, and obviously also learned how not to parent.

  4. Daphne says

    My mom worked constantly, she had 4 kids to feed and no man anywhere near (well, none that would help with kids and buying groceries or cleaning the house, but there were men around, probably too many). Sometimes she had 3 jobs and no car. She worked at a bar & came home drunk and/or high often. She was never affectionate, I don’t remember hearing her tell us I love you until we were adults and as far as I know, we never said it to her, I don’t remember her hugging or kissing us (though she does all of that now with us & the grandkids). Yet all four of us are very dedicated to our children, loving, affectionate. We are also affectionate to our nieces & nephews. It’s a hard thing to grow up like you did and I cannot imagine being in your shoes. But really, growing up knowing how poor we were and that we had to take care of ourselves, it really made us tough. I don’t begrudge her anything because I understand, even as a mother of 2 with a husband who makes decent money while I stay at home, how hard it can be & she had it about 5x worse. But she made her decisions and we make ours. I cannot imagine telling my kids that I love someone more than them. Your story nearly broke my heart. But look where you are now. 🙂 Happy mother’s day.

    • says

      None of us had it easy growing up – none of us. Growing up in and of itself is as difficult a journey as any we will face – eclipsed on perhaps but watching those we brought into this world have to go through those same trials themselves. So we think about what we had, and what we missed, and we do better. Happy (now Belated) Mother’s Day to you, Daphne. Thank you so much for sharing your story here… J.

  5. says

    I love your story, you can feel the honesty. There are a lot of us that have experienced parental rejection in many forms and the lifelong damage that it can inflict, its a mountain to climb to overcome but it sounds like you’ve done it. To have our own children and be able to open ourselves to them heals so much, making us better mothers because of it. Thank you for writing it.

  6. says

    Oh, this is so beautiful, Jamie. I am so sorry that you grew up that way and hugely, wildly impressed at your ability to turn it around and run, as you say, figuratively, in the other direction. I don’t know your children but your closeness to and affection for them has always struck me as genuine, real, and powerful. They are lucky to have you, my friend. xoxox

    • says

      Thank you so much for this, Lindsey. I can’t tell you how much I value your friendship and your words, as I know what care you put into them both. xoxo

  7. says

    I’m sorry you went through a rotten childhood but I totally know how you feel, to a certain extent. My mother was not motherly and was preoccupied with my alcoholic father. I often turned to friends and eventually my best friend’s mother for the affection I missed at home. I didn’t/don’t question her love for me but know that I missed out on a close relationship with her because of her insecurities and obsession with material things. All I wanted was someone to want to spend time with me and often I felt like an obstacle as well. Or something to brag about when I did something well. For that reason, I still think I’m trying to find the true me because I never felt like I was enough.

    And like you, I know exactly the mom I want to be. Not like mine. It’s sad to say and maybe she did the best she could based on how she grew up. I just know that I want my kids to look back on their childhoods and feel the exact opposite as I did. I’m still a work-in-progress and find myself short-tempered or less than what I should be. My family is my priority and I want them to feel that in all that I do.

    With that said, I’m happy to have that cross to bear so that my kids don’t suffer the way I did. Sorry to say this, but I’m glad to hear someone else feels somewhat the same as I do about their mom.

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