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Nancy Alvarez Headshot

What We Learn, and Pass On, from Our Mothers

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These days I find myself thinking about my mom, especially after spending a week with my daughter and her two little boys. They live about four hours away, so I drive down to see them every month. I have been delighted by what a thoughtful and loving mother she has been from the time her first child was born over three years ago. But what has amazed me is how much I see my own mother in some of her actions as she moves through her day with her children. I expected to see some of my behaviors, but not my mother's. That continuity of mothering is very comforting to me.

When I was young and learning how to be a mother, I remember strangers in the park telling me I was speaking to my children in a voice that was too adult; they would never be able to understand. Though their comments made me a little uneasy, I remembered my mother doing the same thing with me. When I would express a thought, she would smile at me and declare, "What a good idea!" My daughter also explains things to her son, Gus, using normal words, not small, childish ones. Now that he is speaking himself, he already has an extensive vocabulary, even if I can't understand what he's saying sometimes because he speaks so quickly. When I do understand him, he is delighted and wants to continue the conversation.

To this day, I can picture my mother in our kitchen, responding to a phrase or a word of mine as well. Whether she was cooking and welcoming my help, even as I spilled flour all over the linoleum floor, or explaining why she didn't want me to walk home from Jane's house by myself after 4 PM -- it would be growing dark and it was a long way -- she clearly expected me to understand whatever it was she was saying. I don't remember being confused. I do remember talking to each of my daughters the same way, neither of whom ever said 'I don't understand.' I talked with both of them before they could speak, as did my daughter with Gus.

I always believed, and still do, that if we respect our children through our actions, they will respect us. This is one of the most important lessons my mother taught me. Until they became teenagers and all bets were off, my children accepted my rules because I listened to their objections and sometimes changed those rules accordingly. They felt heard and so did I.

My mother was loving, tender and cuddly. I used to lie in bed with her, laughing, joking, tickling -- all the behaviors I see when I visit my daughter. I can still picture my parents' bedroom and remember how high up the bed seemed to me. My mom must have pulled me up, much as my daughter and I do with her two sons. When my mom reached out her arms for me, it was the most welcoming sensation in the world. I expected others to be affectionate with me, as do my grandsons, because we both have learned that is how people treat one another.

Of course there are behaviors we wish our children would not take on. I am a worrier, and so are both of my daughters. My father was the worrier in my family of origin, but my mother acceded to his demands and became one as well. Children pick up our behaviors at a very young age. When I am walking to the park with my grandson, he stops at every corner with a look of worry on his face, even when he is joking about crossing the street by himself. I don't think worry is natural to children, but it is a trait he is picking up from his mom who mimicked me. I was never allowed anger as a child because of my mother's health, and often squashed it when my daughters were growing up. My daughter belittles herself if she becomes angry at either boy, although she knows it is a normal emotion. Fortunately, I am less judgmental than my mom was, and my daughter less so than me.

When I'm driving home from my visits to her, I miss my mother, who died many years ago. But I am grateful to see her in the behaviors of my daughter, both positive and negative. Overall she was a good mother. I believe I was, too, and know that my daughter is as well. It comforts me to know that my mother will live on in us, and hopefully, in the generations to follow.