There have been a number of books and articles recently about the high stresses of motherhood, the search for perfection, the anxiety to “balance work and family.” The New York Times Book Review had a piece on “the Mommy trap” (2/20/05). As my children are now both in their early 30’s, one with two kids of her own, I thought I’d take a look at what I did, as I don’t remember being so hysterical about the work of motherhood, even though I was a single parent for most of their early lives, and pretty hands-on. The kids seem to have done well enough and grown up to be decent, loving, honest, hard-working people. And they are nice to me, too. What else could a mother want?
I’ll share here some of my parenting thoughts and practices. Please note, this is a personal story. It is not a recommendation, although if you find here some useful thoughts feel free to take them and adapt them to your own life. Make sure to discuss child care, health-related ideas with your family and health practitioners. Please note also that as this is so personal, and I’m well aware that there are many different living styles that also have good results, there is no judgment involved about people who do things differently.
PERFECTION. Being human, we’re not perfect. The definition of perfection is elusive anyway, it depends on your own upbringing. So drop that idea right away. We can only do the best we can at any given time. Guaranteed, hindsight being 20-20, we will do today what tomorrow we’ll consider mistakes anyway. But there’s no point in worrying about it now because nothing can be done, we don’t know any better.
RESPONSIBILITY. Our children choose us. We have something to teach each other. They have some spiritual responsibility too. So get used to it, kids, you got the parents you picked. No fair putting all the blame on them. That said, of course the parents are in charge, and it is their choices and their style that should be followed in the house. I didn’t believe in asking the kids what they wanted, as I didn’t feel they knew what the choices were! At most, I would give them a choice between a couple of possibilities that I believed were OK.
HEALTH. This was a biggie, and the number one issue in my parenting. My children were born in the early 70’s, and what I did as a mother, with the full support of their father, was way different from the mainstream. We had very different notions, as in the late 60’s and through the 70’s we followed a macrobiotic lifestyle. First of all, I had natural childbirth, which was very new at the time, with the Lamaze system and the first obstetrician in NY who used it – no drugs! Next, I breastfed the children, 100%, for about 6 months, to the horror of some of our friends. I couldn’t imagine giving them powdered or canned formula! I wouldn’t eat/drink that stuff myself. Then I gave them all natural, homemade foods. I also used natural and home remedies for minor illnesses, and avoided over-the-counter and other pharmaceutical drugs. Of course, this meant I had to do a lot of studying to know what could be done, and this was what I considered my main work. My commitment was to raising healthy, well-adjusted human beings and I felt it was worth the effort it took. While I took them for well-baby visits to a pediatrician, I generally dealt with their health issues myself, as I didn’t like the mainstream medical model of drugs and surgery, except for its excellence in handling mechanical problems such as broken bones and other structural issues. Besides natural remedies, I also took them to a doctor who knew homeopathy, which is a wonderful healing system for small children.
FOOD. This was the other component of health, in my point of view. I generally fed the children porridges and other whole grains, beans, vegetables, salads, fruits, and such; some eggs and fish, and as they got older I increased the animal protein with chicken and turkey, very occasionally meat. Most important was, I believed, what I didn’t give them: dairy (milk products) and sugar. I found dairy to be very closely related to infections and mucus. Keeping away from it prevented all kinds of colds and other problems – for example, they never had any ear infections except for one in my youngest child at age 5 months. Sugar I found caused difficult behavior. This was socially the hardest thing. While they were little I managed to keep them away from it, but as they got older they would eat with friends and family, and everyone felt sorry for them that I was such a strict mother and so would feed them sweets. But at least at home there wasn’t any, and they soon learned that eating a lot of sugar didn’t feel good. As I did a lot of cooking and I myself couldn’t care less about dessert – which I don’t think is real food anyway – we never had dessert at home. They did have bananas and other fruit for snacks. Avoiding the sugar, I fully believe, kept their behavior within generally reasonable bounds.
Another point was dealing with all the foods and stuff being advertised on TV. I had a very simple rule: whatever is on TV, I’m not buying, so don’t even bother asking. And I kept to it because I felt very strongly about it! Of course as soon as the children got their own allowance, they would spend it – sometimes, not always – on candy and such. That I didn’t prevent – it was their own money, and they had to learn to make choices anyway. It was just that I wasn’t about to spend my money on foods I thought would be bad for them. But I made it clear that if they ate a lot of junk and got sick and I had to spend my time staying up with them through the night, I wouldn’t be pleased.
LOVE. As any normal parent, I love my children dearly. And they knew it, too. There was lots of hugging and kissing and cuddling, listening to their stories and adventures, discussing their questions. However, I had no compunction in using the word NO. I had to rely on my judgement for serious issues. As my mother said to me, “I am your parent, I’m not your little friend.” Whether the children liked or not what I said/did/allowed was not my issue – what counted was what was appropriate, safe, sensible. They knew the limits, and that made them feel safe. And the limits expanded as they grew.
PLAY. I owe my children love, care, food, shelter, clothes, a good education. I do not owe them entertainment. This was a notion that I got from some spiritual parenting guide and it was the greatest relief for me, as I am not big on playing children’s games. They can entertain themselves. And I don’t have to buy all the fancy toys either. My children knew that. So, just to be different, one year I bought them for Christmas all kinds of toys advertised on TV. They all turned out to be real junk in very pretty packages. This was a great lesson for us all! After that, there was no discussion about buying the toys everyone else had – we had tried it and hadn’t liked it!
WORK. I have my work, the kids have theirs. As babies and toddlers, they learn about the world around them. When they’re in school, they learn what school has to teach them. In general, I believe they should do their own homework, and only when in serious trouble did I get involved, and very briefly at that. I remember only once, when Shana had a rather incompetent math teacher and she couldn’t get negative numbers, that I taught her the concept one morning before breakfast. I also took her out of that school for the next year. I believe that if they fail or get bad grades, on the whole, that is the consequence of their actions, and they must learn that. I will not always be there to bail them out. School is not about getting good grades, it is about learning stuff, doing work, following instructions, navigating the politics, getting along with people. The more the parent gets involved, the less educational it is for the kids. For Kaila, my youngest, who devours math problems like candy and was born knowing language, the main role of school was to socialize her into learning to get along with others. As a result, in high school she did fairly poorly because she wasn’t studying subjects, she was studying social relations. She did learn that, and well, too, but it didn’t show up in her grades! And they each still got into the college of their choice, and did well. Nobody cares about their grades from grade school or high school, I found out.
As far as my own work was concerned, my priority, clearly defined, was my children first (and I considered them part of my work in this world). To stay connected with them and still make a living (after my separation from their father), I started a home business teaching people how to do what I was doing, cooking healthful meals for themselves and their family, and using kitchen remedies. That way I could be home or easily accessible. Much to my surprise and delight, as the kids grew up so did the business, and the less attention my teenagers needed the more I could put in the business. They’re all thriving at this point.
I didn’t give my children lots of money. As a result, they started working in their mid teens, and to this day they work hard and well. There is no point in giving children all they want, because they never learn to work for it, and become lazy and self-indulgent. I’m a believer of teaching them to swim and then throwing them in the water – or, to change metaphors, birds kick the babies out of the nest to teach them how to fly. One of the more fascinating books I read about the dangers of doing too much for the children was The Beggar, by FM Esfandiary. This was about a beggar who had completely atrophied legs and could not walk. He got to be like that because when he was little and started to walk, his mother would see him fall and them carry him around some more, she figured he didn’t know how to walk yet. So she carried him and carried him until he became to big to carry, and by then his legs were not working and he turned out to be crippled for life.
So let’s keep the bandages and the hot soup and the helping hand ready, and let our children learn to walk and run and fly by themselves. That is the greatest satisfaction a parent can have. It also makes for an easier parenting path.