05/08/2011 01:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning from My Children: A Mother's Day Confession

When I was 8, I had names picked out for all of my future offspring (a dozen baby girls dressed in coordinated outfits). At the age of 13, I had my own babysitting business. I majored in child psychology in college and earned a graduate degree in education before getting my very first class of fourth graders. By the time I became pregnant with my first child (a boy, go figure), I knew exactly what kind of mother I was going to be: calm, organized and completely in charge. Yeah, right.

If there's one thing I've learned after four kids and 18 years of parenting, it's this: as much as the mother shapes the child, the child shapes the mom.

Despite my intentions of being a cool-as-a-cucumber parent, the birth of my first child, now 18, transformed me into a maternal tossed salad. For the first two years of his life, I refused to leave the house without my "What to Expect" manual for fear I might need to know how to make a baby tourniquet or something.

Impossibly, it would seem, that baby grew to be the most serene and easygoing person I've ever known. Like a human tranquilizer, he puts me at ease, offering me a voice of reason in a way few others can. "You should be less worried about me getting E. coli from a raw hamburger and more worried about me choking on this overcooked hockey puck," he once said during dinner. I had to laugh. He had a point -- and it wasn't the first time. I needed to chill. Maybe I'm not the unflappable parent I'd hoped to be, but thanks to my laid-back eldest, I'm a little closer to it.

Where my first son was born going with the flow, my second son, now 16, carves his own current. When he was 12, he wanted to take electric guitar lessons. I said no -- he had enough going on with school, baseball and football. So he got some secondhand strings, taught himself to play via instructional YouTube videos, and started a rock band with some middle school buddies. Take-charge Mama might have grounded her willful son, but something in me had changed. Instead of getting angry, I threw a huge party in the basement and invited everyone over for The Allies' first concert.

Somewhere along the way, this staunchly inner-directed child had taught me that my purpose in parenting is not to tell him when, where and how to flap his wings, but to give him the ability to soar, unafraid, on his own.

By the time Baby No. 3 came along, I was less hovering (thanks to my oldest) and less controlling (thanks to my next). But I was still clinging to my super-organized, scheduled-down-to-the-last-minute tendencies. As with his older brothers, my third son certainly changed all that.

Here is an 11-year-old brimming with curiosity, who collects information like other kids collect baseball cards. Mothering him is like being a perpetual contestant on Jeopardy. The trouble is, joining my son in his knowledge quests can take a lot of time. Practice with him for the geography bee? Of course. But I had to brush up first. Read the five-book Percy Jackson series with him? Sure. And 28 hours of reading later (yes, 28!), we finally finished the last book. But I wouldn't have missed those juicy mother-son book chats for anything.

With my third child as my guide, I've learned to look up from my weekly planner every now and then to see the world, and to stop and smell the roses, even if they're not exactly on the way.

The mom I thought I'd be all those years ago certainly isn't the mom I've become. My kids have seen to that. But my spirited 8-year-old daughter sometimes reminds me of the girl I used to be. After being beckoned to her room "to see something important," I was greeted by a display of 12 dolls lined up on her bed. "They're my babies!" she announced before rattling off their names one by one.