During the hardest part of my very hard recent labor with my baby daughter, Charlotte, my cell phone kept ringing – over and over and over. It was tempting to turn it off, but as the mother of three older children who weren’t with me at the hospital, I was afraid that if I did, one of the other kids might break an arm in a bike accident or something, and I’d miss the call letting me know.
In fact, the call I kept getting was from my eldest child, my sixteen-year-old son. He hadn’t broken any bones, but he had been invited to “teen night” at a local nightclub, and he wanted to know whether he could go. My answer was no the first time he called, as well as the seventh time he called, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Arguing with a teenage boy is never going to be my favorite thing to do, and it turns out that it’s especially not my favorite thing to do while attempting to give birth to said teenage boy’s baby sister. The conversation went something like this:
Teenage boy (in whiny, persistent tone): “Mom, everyone else is going, and if I don’t go, no one will want to hang out with me for the rest of the summer!”
Me (through gritted teeth): “Son, if you call me again to ask me this same question while I am trying to get this baby out, you won’t live long enough to see your friends any more for the rest of the summer.”
I hung up the phone and reflected on the fact that almost two decades earlier, I had given birth to the teenage boy on this very same floor at the very same hospital. During the following six years, I had two more children, a daughter and another son. By age twenty-nine, I believed I was completely finished having babies, and that the family I’d created with my husband was complete.
But I was wrong. Divorce, followed several years later by remarriage to a wonderful man more than a few years my junior led me to the happy decision to become a mother for the fourth time, at age forty. So today I have a four-month-old baby and three much older children. After believing I was finished, I am now getting the opportunity to start again at one of life’s most challenging and important tasks.
I am, in effect, getting a parent do-over. While my three older children aren’t grown up by any means, they are far enough along in the process that I have a fair idea of how my parenting has panned out so far, meaning I can already see the effect of many of the specific parenting choices I made in early childhood.
Not surprisingly, I find my three older offspring to be the most special and appealing children I’ve ever met, and others who know them agree; these are great kids. But if I am honest, I have to admit there are some things I wish I had done differently in my earliest years of raising them. That’s because, like most mothers I know, I question my own parenting choices regularly. Unlike many other mothers, however, I will now get the chance to try things another way with this brand new baby.
The biggest thing I hope to do differently with and for Charlotte is stay married to her father. My divorce profoundly and forever marked my older children’s childhoods. Even with two loving and involved parents who live only a few miles away from one another and share custody, my children have suffered more than any child should suffer from their parents’ inability to remain married. Despite my confidence that my first marriage was, in the end, truly not salvageable, I will never be one of those divorced parents who rationalizes the break-up as better for the kids. In fact, our kids would have strongly preferred their parents remain under one roof, whether we were personally fulfilled or not. Before my divorce, I certainly never believed divorce was good for kids, but sadly, I know now just how hard it is on them.The biggest thing I hope to do differently with and for Charlotte is stay married to her father. My commitment to remain a married parent is now different than it was before; I have learned through hard and bitter experience that the grass is not greener for children – at least my children – when their parents break up.
Of course, while family configuration provides the larger backdrop, it is the day-to-day decisions that ultimately define who we are as parents and how our children turn out. Much of it is trial and error. A few of my parenting trials have already produced obvious errors, including my decision in their first years of schooling to convey a relatively lax view of academic performance. I made this decision because I simply assumed that my brilliant offspring – growing up in households full of books, educational toys and adults with advanced degrees – would naturally become stellar students. Given this assumption, I never pushed them to perform to a certain level at school. Today, with one nearing college, I have determined that I was wrong. As it happens, none of them seem to find the quest for high grades particularly worthwhile. And in hindsight, this is to a large degree my fault.
Now when I push my kids for better report cards, my earlier lack of insistence on top grades comes back to haunt me, like the ghost of bad parenting past. As a result, my previous earthy-crunchy, Waldorfian view of academic performance has evolved. When Charlotte reaches school age, I will make it clear to her from the very beginning that grades matter, and I will expect her to make every effort to earn good ones.
Another area where some of my misguided early parenting continues to spank me is household management, a.k.a. “chores.” I’m no Martha Stewart myself; in fact, my own grasp of the domestic arts is tenuous. I will always find running a household – cooking, shopping, cleaning and organizing – a challenge. But I did myself no favors by raising a house full of now-big kids who are similarly disinclined to tidy up on a regular basis. More importantly, I did them no favors. Sixteen years into my mothering career, I’ve come to the somewhat belated conclusion that helping young children learn to clean and organize their own space is an important skill. Not only does it keep the house in more pleasant running order, it helps them to develop the all-important work ethic that will serve them well the rest of their days.
Alas, I was largely unsuccessful in imparting these lessons when my older children were little. And my half-hearted attempts over the years to play catch-up and get them to do their fair share of the housework haven’t made up for my earlier failure to require them to make their own beds and put away their toys. This time around, baby sister will be learning to shelve her own books and box up her wooden puzzles as soon as she can walk.
Of course, when reviewing my parenting failures, my successes also come to light. Clearly, I’ve gotten some things right, because my older children are already truly lovely people. They are all quite independent, as well as polite, clever, funny, kind and talented. I certainly can’t take all the credit for this, but I’ll proudly claim some, and I’ll also be happily repeating many of my earlier choices and practices now that I’m starting Parenting 2.0.
For example, I don’t regret always picking them up when they Clearly, I’ve gotten some things right, because my older children are already truly lovely people. cried, or letting them sleep in our room as babies and toddlers. I don’t regret having breastfed them until they were preschoolers, or deciding against spanking as a form of discipline. I am happy that I have encouraged them to take risks and accept challenges, and I’m very happy with my decision to actively encourage their political and social justice awareness from very early ages. These mothering choices have obviously worked well, and I’m happy to have made them.
I never expected to have the opportunity to try my hand at mothering another baby. She represents a new beginning for me, as well as for her older siblings. She’s proof to all of us that while family change can be hard, it can also be a blessing.
Let’s just hope she’s a blessing who learns to pick up her dirty laundry.