What I Learned From My Mother About Parenting

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vintage-photo-of-girl

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.

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.”

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 anytime – 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 stoploving them.

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?

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  1. 1

    Kylie says

    I want my mom. Just not my mom. I feel like this all the time. My mom loves me, but she’s not motherly at all. When I need her the most I always have to get an earful of her problems first. I try to do the opposite with my daughter. I listen to everything she says. Even though she is only 1, I understand her feelings are important and I want her to come to me when she needs me, like I couldn’t with my mom.

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    • 2

      Amanda P says

      I thought I was alone! I had a roof over my head, two parents, food on the table, clothes on my back …. but real love from my mom, NOPE. My ‘mother’ gave birth to me and left me to raise myself. My father always said to me when I needed ‘backing-up’ ‘I promised your mother I would always back her, and I have to sleep with her every night. If I was a nice life, I will always back your mother’. I tell my girls everyday that I love them. Hugs, kisses, conversations and yes even arguments. I do the complete opposite of what my mother did. I love my children and they know and feel it!

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    • 3

      me says

      I worry about this all the time. I’m not maternal. I fake it better with my son than I managed with my daughter, but at four she and I clash more than ever and I fear she is going to feel the way about me that you feel about your mother. I try so hard but it just doesn’t feel right, even though we have so much the same personality

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    • 4

      Shannon T says

      I was thinking the same thing! Whenever I think “what would my mom do?” it’s always so I can make sure to do the opposite. It’s turning out pretty good so far.

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  2. 5

    says

    Wow. What a powerful post. Thank you for having the strength to share!

    It took me a long time to realise my parents loved me and despite the things they said or did that cut me to the bone, they are just people. I’m lucky because they do love me, are very supportive of how I am raising my daughter, and we have a wonderful relationship now, but there are some things that I will not be passing on!

    As Peggy O’Mara says, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”, so I make sure her inner voice is loud, clear, and self-loving.

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  3. 7

    says

    Oh Jamie. Wow. I couldn’t love this more. I also do the opposite, for reasons similar but not the same as yours. For a long time, I was terrified that my kids were destined to have the same childhood as me, and it was like a light opening in the heavens when I realized that NO. No, it didn’t have to be anything like my childhood. Ever since then I’ve given my kids the mom I always wanted. The mom I always needed. The mom I still wish I had.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful read!

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  4. 10

    says

    This is heartbreaking.
    One that really caught my attention was the mom telling her that she loves her but “doesn’t have to like” her.

    How many times have I seen commenters and bloggers say that they sometimes say to their kids, I love you but I don’t really like you right now?

    I don’t think it’s a sentiment that will damage your relationship with your children by itself, but it’s important to be aware of the way we treat our littles, and how much importance we place upon building our relationships with them. I think that’s where this blogger’s mom fell down on the job.

    Do Moms always “like” their children, and are you a bad mom if you think your kid’s a jerk sometimes? Hell no.

    Just be aware of your interactions- love is like a bank- you have to make deposits as well as withdrawals. The more love you deposit into your child’s account, the richer your relationship with him/her will be. Those times you just need your kid to go away and leave you alone for a little while… those are withdrawals. Make them with care, and, as often as you can, get what you need without letting it be a withdrawal- send them to g-ma’s or someplace for an afternoon, without making it about you. Your kid will never know that Mom just needed some alone time. Or just say it in a way that doesn’t diminish your child:
    “Mom needs some alone time right now, so I want you to go play quietly in your room until the clock reads “X:XX” or the timer goes off.”

    We all make withdrawals. Hell, we all have overdrafts at times… but as long as we keep paying in with love and connection and support and yes, reasonable and firm discipline, that balance will just keep growing and our kids will be able to pay it forward to their own children.

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  5. 13

    Jennifer says

    I want to give you a big hug! I never had the words to express how I felt but “blanket of loneliness” sums it up. I did not have a mother and my father was physically abusive until I was 17. Children were to be seen – NOT heard. The countless hours I lived in my room. The horror stories I could tell, the excuses I could use in the present! Instead, like you, I remind myself what would my dad do and do the opposite. Since the day my kids were born and even now as they’re 9 and 6, I can’t fathom how my dad could have hurt me the way that he did…all the while saying I love you. I think WWDD and do the opposite. Although I’m not anywhere near perfect, I’ve tried real hard to fight the demons and give better to my kids. I say I love you and mean it ALL THE TIME, I don’t beat the sh#t out them (I am a yeller though), and spend time with them doing things. I want to see them and HEAR them – without the tattling though :)

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  6. 16

    Maria says

    I can absolutely relate to your mom and the pain of your childhood. My mom now is so different as a grandmother – affectionate, caring, funny and loving. “Who is this person? This is not my Mom!” I say to myself when she’s around my child. I ended up forgiving her, not forgetting but forgiving. I understand she did the best she could and did not know at the time how to love.

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    • 17

      jennlw says

      Yeah, my mom is a lot different with my kids too. I wonder the same thing. And sometimes I think that she doesn’t deserve to have my kids love and admire her! Then I realize I am being petty and immature and let it go. Although my almost 14 yo daughter is mature and wise enough that she is starting to see the immaturity and selfishness.

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  7. 21

    says

    This one hit very, very close to home for me. People think that if you weren’t beaten, starved, and locked in a closet that there shouldn’t be any “lasting damage” from your childhood, but knowing that you were merely tolerated and “dealt with” leaves deep, painful scars that never really fully heal. I catch myself becoming frustrated with my son every once in awhile and I hear my parents’ words in my head, trying to claw their way out of my mouth, and sometimes it is the hardest thing in the world to bite them back and make the choice to use a different voice, but it is always, always worth it. He may be too young to understand what I’m saying now, but he won’t always be, and I refuse to damage him the way I was (and still am). All parents have a hold over their children, and in the end, all children will believe they are what their parents tell them.

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  8. 30

    says

    I was casually told as an early teen by my mom “I should have gone into the service instead of having kids.” It’s never left my thoughts. Some things you should just keep to yourself as a parent because kids never forget things like that.

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