My mom and I are mothers at the polar ends of a spectrum, each of us envying the way the other got to be a mother.
My mum, Barbara, had a glamorous job as a fashion buyer for Eaton’s in the early 1970s – she was good at it, she loved it, and she had the knockout mini-dresses and platinum bouffant that came with it. Then she got married, got pregnant with me, and it was unimaginable (to my Dad, her parents, her bosses) that she would keep working.
So she spent the next 30 years (my youngest sibling and I are 11 years apart in age) as a stay-at-home mum in the suburbs. She made us fantastic outfits, she made fancy meals from recipes in magazines, and she ferried the three of us to dancing-swimming-tennis-hockey-diving-skating-pottery lessons. She nagged us to practise the piano, pushed us to do a bigger, better science fair project – and, in my memories, she said, “Go out and play.” And we did.
Other than two parental leaves, I’ve never been a stay-at-home parent. The idea of having endless hours to build a chair fort in the yard with my kids seems blissful to me. If I’m going to go to art class or the school play, it takes juggling. But I love my job, and I know my mother looks backs at her own years of Sesame Street and digestive biscuits and wishes she had had the easy access I do to new ideas, interesting conversations – to validation, as someone other than Mummy.
So when I ask her what she thinks of how she did, as our mother, and how I’m doing, we’re judging from different worlds.
Her first response is that she did fine – she’s proud of the three of us, we “turned out” well. But, she adds, looking back, she realizes that a lot of the things she thought were important at the time, weren’t. “If I had it to do over, I would be less rigid and more patient. I wouldn’t be so strict, with schoolwork, and things like piano practice. I pushed you.” But then, we agree, if you don’t push eight-year-olds to practise, how will they ever know the satisfaction of mastering something? I’m glad I can play the piano – but I hesitate to sign my own kids up, because I remember the constant conflict about practising. It was my mother, I might add, who all but forced me to apply for a job as a cub reporter at the local paper when I was 14. Parents hover too much, these days, she said – they should step back and let the kids be.
Then she mentioned in passing that she couldn’t imagine being a parent today, “with Facebook and bullying and all that.” I said, But wait. Bullying was a huge problem when I was a kid; there were 100 ways to be mean before Facebook: “I was relentlessly tormented through all of middle school and high school, remember?” And she said, “Yes, but you could handle it.” And I said, “Barely.” I remember those years as the terrifying and miserable, the worst of my life. “Maybe we should have done more to try to stop it,” she reflected. “You should have,” I replied bluntly, then added that I was ashamed and went to huge lengths to hide what was happening from my parents, so I didn’t fault them for not knowing how bad it was. The view at the time was that kids had to “learn to survive,” my mum said, and she was afraid to make it worse by getting the school involved. So then we came around to the need to be “hyperaware,” as she put it, and ready to step in, to make sure your kids know you have their backs, as it were. So much for not hovering.
“Just love them,” my mum said finally. “Teach them to be kind and respectful and make sure they know you love them. That’s the best you can do.”