My son was nearly two years old and had yet to utter a word. It was driving me nuts.
He was my first child. Like many new moms, I felt a special pressure for him to succeed. That's our burden as mothers. For decades, women have been told that when it comes to our children's achievements -- or shortcomings-- we hold all the cards. When he was small, I relied on all the most popular child-rearing books, and when my baby boy didn't fit neatly into one of their categories or didn't behave or progress as he was "supposed to," naturally I blamed myself. Had I not gotten enough sleep while pregnant? What about that time in his infancy he accidentally banged his head on the sink when I was giving him a bath? Of course, I didn't bother to note when things were going well.
The other mothers I found myself surrounded by didn't exactly help me feel any better. Highly educated and high-powered, Manhattan moms are a particularly eager, anxious, and competitive lot. One afternoon, I confided in the mom of a little girl in our late infant/early toddler playgroup whose daughter wasn't yet walking that I was concerned my son wasn't walking, either. Immediately, defensively, she shot back: "At least my child is talking." Ouch.
On the advice of some friends who suggested music class might stimulate my very young son's speech development, I enrolled him in the best Manhattan music academy for toddlers I could find. It was hard to get to and terribly inconvenient, but I was getting pretty desperate. A few weeks in, he was having great fun -- and mumbling lots of incoherent noises that I obsessively tried to decipher -- but still not forming actual words.
One winter afternoon, following a healthy dose of tambourine banging, we wandered outside to catch the uptown bus home. It was snowy -- and getting snowier by the minute -- and after a few minutes of waiting, there was still no bus in sight. I decided to hail a cab, and couldn't find one of those either. Though we were dressed appropriately, we were a good few miles from home -- way too far to walk. That's when I started to panic.
And that's also when my little boy put up his hand and shouted, "Taxi!" Just like that.
Even the most come-what-may mothers know that worrying is an inescapable part of the job. In large part, that's because we're expected to do most of the work and forced to accept the blame when something goes wrong -- without much praise when something goes right. Years ago, people actually believed that a mother's behavior could cause her son to be autistic, schizophrenic or gay. And while the thought sounds ridiculous now, the tendency to heap blame onto mothers persists. These days, we're overprotective if we worry too much and negligent if we don't. We're smothering or bossy if we engage too eagerly, icy if we give kids too much space. If we pursue a career (or even work at all), we're overly self-indulgent, and if we don't, we're overly-involved with the kids.
Years of studying gender and psychology have shown me that mothers continually get a bad rap, which can cause us to experience needless worry, anxiety and self-doubt. In fact, there's absolutely no research to back up the idea that "good" mothers turn out "good" kids, while "bad" mothers turn out "bad" kids. That's why it's time to rethink the tendency to assign -- and accept -- blame, and focus on what's important when raising your kids: good, loving, growth-encouraging parenting.
1. Refuse to be judged. Reject social judgments about your family structure or how you choose to parent. By making no apologies and ignoring judgments, you'll provide your kids with an example of strength, character and conviction.
Nicole and Michelle parent two boys now in their teens. When Conner was in first grade, he came home in tears. He'd been asked to draw a picture of his family, and had drawn himself alongside Nicole and Michelle. The teacher looked at it and said, "That's not what I mean. Everybody has one mother and one father." The other kids in the class argued that the picture really did represent Connor's family, but the teacher wouldn't listen. The kids understood what many adults do not: That Connor's family was every bit as valid as a mother-father family.
2. Be yourself. The idea of the "perfect mom" is a myth. These days, we come in all shapes, sizes, forms and sexual orientations. As Anne Lamott writes in the foreword to Mothers Who Think, "Somewhere along the way, we figured out that normal is a setting on the dryer." Note how high-profile moms like Edie Falco, Charlize Theron, Jodie Foster, Diane Keaton and Sandra Bullock are parenting sons and daughters without husbands. Yet despite their deviation from what's been deemed a "normal" family pattern, the media routinely portray these women in a positive light. And they should. Parenting a child is a huge undertaking and should be applauded and celebrated. You're no different.
3. Make time for what's really important. The reality is that it's how a family acts, not the way it's made up, that determines whether a child succeeds or fails. Family priorities should include eating dinner together, spending more time together and talking with one another. It should include watching your kids play sports, perform in recitals or otherwise encouraging their interests. The number of times parents eat dinner with their kids is a better guide to how well they'll turn out than the number or gender of the parents at the table.
4. Be your best you. The notion of the "working mom" is always a hot button topic, and the current discourse is no different. Even today, the term "working mother" carries a sniff of disapproval and feint praise -- no one debates about "working fathers," after all. Some Republicans would have us believe that only economically disadvantaged moms should work, while one Democratic pundit came under fire for asserting that well-off moms who choose to stay home with their kids are self-indulgent. But whether or not to pursue a career or hold a job outside of the home is a very personal and entirely individual decision that depends on many, many factors. And smart moms know that their personal achievements of any kind -- from schooling to the workplace to right there at home -- will help, not hinder, their kids.
5. Be active and thoughtful. Mothers who have thought ahead about being mothers and who line up other mothers as a support system are way ahead of the game. A good mother helps her child develop his or her full potential by encouraging growth, independence and a sense of adventure. A good mother talks to her kids. Over years of working with parents and children, I've found that most kids are willing to share endless amounts of information with me mainly because I'm willing to listen. Find out what disappoints, scares and hurts them. Be willing to question, learn and laugh. That's how you'll connect with your kids -- and, just as importantly, how you'll connect with yourself.