Not long ago I was talking with a friend, a mother younger than I and with younger children. She shared that she has sometimes struggled with knowing how to mother her children, as her own mother did not exhibit many of the behaviors we typically associate with motherhood. In fact, rather than learning from her mother what to do, she learned more about what not to do, as her mother was emotionally abusive.
For the woman who does not have a strong, positive mother figure in her life, it can be hard to know where to turn for help with this enigma called motherhood. Even when the mother-daughter relationship is good, the miles between in our highly mobile society may preclude the kind of close, hands-on support that used to be more common. What does a woman who desires to be a good mother do when, for one reason or another, her own mother is not available to her as either a role model or a mentor?
Pondering my friend’s question, I couldn’t help thinking about my own mother, may she rest in peace. She did much that was right, in spite of many strikes against her. When she was a child she was effectively abandoned by her own parents and left to be raised by relatives. She ended up marrying and starting her own family at the age of 17.
Unfortunately, her first husband was physically abusive and her second, my father, an alcoholic. The challenges of my mother’s life, combined with her own tendency to depression, were a bitter mix, and she struggled in many ways. Still, growing up, I never doubted her love.
Given her own mother’s absence in her life, where did she learn to be a mom to seven children? Where did I learn to do some of the things I have done as a mother, things I must admit I did not get from her? Where can any young mother turn for guidance when she embarks on the lifelong and very bumpy journey that is motherhood?
Start with a Few Good Books
There is not just one answer. One that readily comes to mind is fiction. In both literature and on screen, there is no shortage of excellent mothers from which to learn. (There is also no shortage of terrible mothers, but that’s another article.) In the idyllic characters of June Cleaver and Carol Brady we see traditional stay-at-home mothers who are always ready with a smile, a glass of milk, and a plateful of cookies to meet the child who’s had a hard day at school.
If you ever watched “Eight Is Enough,” you will remember Abby, the antithesis of the wicked stepmother in her ability to bring calm and reassurance to almost any situation. Ann Romano of “One Day at a Time” is a bundle of energy, working full-time while daily passing on accumulated life wisdom to her teenage daughters.
Then there is Caroline Ingalls, demonstrating the possibility of being loving and firm at the same time; Ma Walton, the importance of family meals, faith, and always saying goodnight; Marmee of “Little Women,” strength in adversity; Molly Weasley, unconditional love and abundant hospitality; and Aurora Greenway, determination and fierce protectiveness. I’m sure as you read this you are mentally adding your own names (and yes, I know this list dates me!).
Another obvious source of instruction and inspiration is parenting books. The challenge is not finding them—they are plentiful—but figuring out which ones will be truly helpful. To some extent that varies from person to person. Children are different, and so are their moms. What works for one child, or one family, may not work for another.
How-to books can also often discourage rather than encourage, presenting both strategies and results that can seem impossible to execute in the messiness of real life. One mom I know, when she gives such books as gifts, also gives a salt shaker (sending the message that everything in the book is to be taken with a grain of salt).
Probably the best way for a mom in search of book recommendations to narrow down the choices is to ask other moms, particularly those whose situation is similar or who seem to be doing something right. I recently asked some moms I know that very question; here are a few of their recommendations.
- Phelan, “1-2-3 Magic”
- Sears, “The Baby Book”
- Schaeffer, “What Is a Family”
- Rosemond, “Parent Power”
- Chapman, “The 5 Love Languages of Children”
- Cline and Fay, “Parenting with Love and Logic”
You Can Also Study Up
In addition to books, there is value in formal training. Particularly for the new mother who did not grow up with siblings or doing a lot of babysitting, a child development class could be extremely helpful. A basic understanding of how children develop physically, emotionally, and cognitively can ward off unnecessary fits of worry as well as erring by pushing too hard in one area or neglecting to see potential problems or issues in another.
As someone who has a rather stubborn “don’t tell me what to do” streak, I resist the idea that I need an expert to teach me about something that women have been doing since the beginning of human history. As a conservative, I am also naturally cynical about the latest trends, no matter the area of study, and suspicious of academia in general. But the idea here is not to take a course that pushes a particular parenting style or the current educational fad, but simply one in human development.
If you have not spent a lot of time around children, it can be enlightening to learn what the benchmarks are. When do most children start to crawl, walk, and talk? When does abstract thought develop? What is reasonable to expect from a child in managing his or her emotions? Having a basic frame of reference for answering such questions can be immensely helpful and help ward off excessive bouts of worry and doubt.
Get Real-Life Role Models Where You Can
But more than stories, more than how-to books, and more than classes, the greatest source of learning and encouragement for any of us in almost any area of life, including parenting, is other people. I learned a lot about mothering from people who could hardly be called experts on the subject.
For example, one of the things that is central to the way my husband and I have reared our children is the family meal. Yet growing up, I don’t remember my family sitting down to a lot of meals together. Particularly as my siblings moved out of the house and I, the “baby,” was left at home, I remember meals being taken, more often than not, on trays in front of the TV. We also never prayed together before meals.
But when Aunt Lou visited, it was another story! When Aunt Lou visited, we set a table, sat together, and prayed before we ate. It was a rare treat, and I loved it. Yet my Aunt Lou never had any children her own. By the time of my earliest memories of her, she was already a widow.
Aunt Lou also always went to church. For about the first 12 years of my life, church was something you did on Easter. Aunt Lou, by contrast, not only went all the time but talked about it all the time. Her faith was essential to her being, a natural part of her vocabulary without which she didn’t know how to express herself. In that respect she was a singular figure in my childhood.
When I started having my own children, whom my husband and I were committed to bringing up in the Christian faith, it was time to figure out how to do this thing called catechesis. The primary force behind that effort has always been my husband, who has made sure over almost 30 years of marriage that our faith in Christ has always been at the center.
In addition to him, I have had many years of faithful female role models in the churches I have been a part of. There are so many I can’t possibly list them all. They were nursery attendants, Sunday School teachers, pastors’ wives, and the many women, week after week, who sat in the pews taking care of their own children or helping me with mine. From watching them I learned amazing things about how to pray with my children, worship with my children, and teach my children about Jesus.
Then there are my sisters, several of whom, like our mother, took the dive into motherhood before they were really ready to do so. In spite of our house not being a particularly religious one, there was never to my knowledge any talk of addressing an unplanned pregnancy via abortion. A new baby was coming, and it needed to be cared for. When babies were born, whatever the circumstances, there was joy at the event.
In my sisters, who were mothers so young, I saw fierce and utter devotion to being a mother. I didn’t realize then how young and ill-prepared they were, how scared they must have been, how overwhelming it all was. They looked like such total pros at it. Now I realize they were simply doing, as best they could, what needed to be done.
Motherhood Is a Skill You Develop Over Time
If you are not a mom yet but hoping to be one someday, my best advice is to not embark on that journey alone. First and most importantly, have a dad at your side. Second, connect yourself to a church. Third, look for and avail yourself of mentors and models wherever you can find them. Fourth, have several trusted friends on whose shoulders you can cry with impunity. Fifth, trust yourself, and in so doing, know that you will make mistakes, but that every mistake is an opportunity to learn as well as to demonstrate to your child what “try, try again” is all about.
Ultimately, motherhood is not a science, but an art. It is not a construction project that will be ruined if you don’t follow the step-by-step instructions perfectly. It is more like going on one of those chef shows where you’re given a bunch of ingredients and told to come up with a recipe. Except in this case you aren’t a chef, or any kind of expert, but a rank beginner. You’re starting from scratch, and the thing you are going to make will not be like anything anyone else has ever made before.
Having never cooked a day in your life, you’re suddenly expected to put together a dish that is not merely edible, but scrumptious and beautiful to look at. It is a daunting and terrifying task, especially considering that rightly or wrong, you will be judged by your work product. Just remember that much of it is out of your hands. That part I suggest you leave to God. For the rest, you don’t have to go it alone. You might, however, need to put forth some effort to find the support that you need.
I have found support in a multiplicity of places, the most important being other people. From the fellow homeschooling moms who live in my computer, to my aunts and sisters, to my church community, to my own mom, the line of people standing behind me in my mothering journey stretches as far back as the eye can see. Many of them probably don’t even realize the extent to which they modeled motherhood for me. They were people, both men and women, who in one way or another put someone else’s needs before their own. That in the end is what motherhood—and fatherhood—are all about.
My mom worked full-time almost her entire life. She wasn’t able to do a lot of the stereotypical TV mom kinds of things. But here are a few things of the things I remember her doing: Brushing my long, easily tangled hair while telling me stories about her childhood; Driving me wherever I needed to go and talking about whatever was on my mind on the way; Writing out by hand a stack of index cards with recipes to give me when I got married; Moving out of her home state of Texas to be close enough to babysit my children when I started having them; and telling me over and over again on her deathbed that she loved me.