What we wish someone had told us
I asked the mothers: "What regrets do you have? What advice would you give to a mother with a younger child? What would you do differently if you could do it over again?" Our collective wisdom can be summarized as follows.
Don't be overprotective. Allow your kids to experience difficulties. We were so concerned about our kids developing self-esteem, we may have undermined their ability to participate in the world as adults. Failure is a part of life. As one mother said, "Of course they have a sense of entitlement. We gave it to them." Helicopter mothering also robs children of a feeling of accomplishment and belief in themselves. The foundation of self-conï¬�dence is the ability to say, "I was successful because I tried hard, weathered adversity, and used my skills," not, "My parents helped me."
Don't over-program your kids. They need the freedom to play, explore, and discover who they are. They also need to learn how to organize themselves and create structure out of a blank canvas of time. How will they cope as adults in a world that places a premium on creativity, self-management, and problem-solving skills if they have had everything organized for them?
Don't treat your kids as your best friend. Forget the popularity contest of being the coolest mom on the block. You will end up an embarrassment to your kids and their friends who laugh at parents who dress, talk, and listen to the same music they do. Maintain appropriate boundaries, and be respectful of theirs. Don't make your kids your confidants. They should not know about marital or other difï¬�culties until they are old enough to understand what they mean.
Don't overestimate your own importance. What you do is important, but parents attribute too much of their children's outcomes to themselves. Parents play a role, but so do peers and genes. (And regardless of what you do, they may still blame you if they have problems later in life.)
Don't project your own needs onto your kids or deï¬�ne yourself through them. You cannot live your kids' lives, and nor should you live through theirs. Your kid's success or failure is independent of who you are. You are not a failure if your child doesn't get into Harvard. Nor are you a better person if she does.
See your kids in terms of their own needs, attributes, and personality characteristics. Cherish them for who they are, rather than bemoaning who they are not.
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If you really feel guilty, do something about it and change your behaviour. But if you do not feel you are doing something wrong, then all this "I feel so guilty" chatter is just a meaningless way of making you feel better about yourself and trying to look better to others.
Lighten up. Don't evaluate every step your kid does or does not take in terms of their future capacity to make a living. Whether or not they get into the gifted program, the elite private school, or the school play will probably have little impact on who they become. Your disappointment and distress, on the other hand, will send a strong message about what you value in them -- they are lovable only to the extent they are achieving or pleasing Mother, not lovable when they are not.
Take your own counsel. Be appreciative of others' advice, but recognize that their parenting style and child's personality will be different from yours. There are no universal truths when it comes to parenting.
Refuse to play in the "Mummy Wars." Don't evaluate your child or your parenting by other kids' achievements or activities, or what other mothers are doing to give their kids a "leg up." Don't engage in social comparison -- feeling better about yourself to the extent your kids are achieving more than others, worse about yourself if they are not. I know many mothers who are depressed because their kids are not academic superstars. Remember the normal curve. Maintain a sense of self independent of your kids.
Be "in the moment." Almost every working mother wishes that she had been able to enjoy her kids more. These comments were typical: "I was always distracted, thinking about my work or what else I still had to do." "My body would be there, my mind somewhere else." "I was always worrying about what they weren't doing, what extracurricular classes they were not taking, or what marks they were not getting, rather than the good things they were doing." For children there is no difference between quality time and quantity time.
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Don't make financial or other sacrifices that impact your emotional well-being. Your children need you to nurture as well as to provide. Forget a fancy neighbourhood, expensive vacations, or private school if the only way you can provide them is by being constantly stressed.
If you come home grumpy or are resentful of your life, your children will suffer much more than if you are making work/life choices you feel good about. Be honest with yourself about whose needs you are meeting -- theirs or your desire to "look good." Many mothers are in essence sending themselves to private school.
The kids ultimately pay the price. A comment I have heard from many young adults whose parents made significant financial sacrifices is "It puts so much pressure on you to pay them back for what they gave up. I don't know if I'm pursuing this career because I want to, or because of that parental voice in my head which says, ‘You must achieve. You must be successful because of what I've done for you.'"
Don't allow yourself to be swallowed by your kids. Deï¬�ne yourself broadly. Nurture your romantic and other relationships. Some women made sad comments such as "I always put my kids' needs before my own. I lost my sense of who I am somewhere between the dance class and soccer practice. And one day they are grown up and you ï¬�nd yourself very lonely, in a shell relationship with your husband, and without any sense of purpose."
Remember that they are his kids as well. Imagine a man saying about his wife, "She's really good with the kids and helps me a lot around the house." If you ever find yourself making a statement about your partner, which when flipped around would sound odd, stop for a moment and ask yourself important questions about the division of labour in your home.
Whose expectations are being ï¬�lled? What is your role and your husband's role in maintaining this state of affairs? (Sometimes it is the women who are guilty -- they guard jealously their position as chief parent and household manager even if they bitch about their husbands doing nothing.) Are you comfortable with the arrangements? If not, how can you renegotiate these expectations?
Excerpted from Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life by Barbara Moses, Ph.D. Copyright 2006 by Barbara Moses. Excerpted with permission by McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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