A newborn baby sitting next to its mother and grandmother
Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

Can I Learn From My Mom, Or Should She Be Learning From Me?

The hope that our children will grow up to be wiser, healthier, happier people than we managed to be, is universal. I am bracing myself for the day my daughter reviews her childhood and points out my glaring mistakes, vows never to make them herself, and goes on to become more successful than me in all areas of life. But progress is hardly linear. As comforting as it may be to imagine we’ve improved upon what our parents taught us, are we sure we’re doing a better job than they did? At what point does mom stop knowing best?

My mother thinks that we, as a generation, are failing as parents. Having decades of experience teaching elementary school children, she frequently complains that children are brattier than they used to be back in the good old Twentieth Century. They’re arrogant, obnoxious, glutted with undeserved praise. They don’t respect their elders, and are strangers to basic discipline. My mother doesn’t blame the children, of course; she blames the parents, those of us who came of age in the decadence of the '80s and '90s. However indirectly, my mother blames me.

Every time I walk down the block without my stroller, I hear my mother’s voice, whispering she’s too young, the hours are too long, she needs her mother most of all.

I’m not sure my mom will ever forgive me, or anyone in my generation, for venturing so far from home, breaking so drastically with tradition, and raising our children without grandmothers and aunties breathing down our backs. Shortly after I was born, my mother moved back into her childhood home. She is proud that, as a single mother of three, she never used daycare. Daycare, in my mother’s opinion, is the tenth circle of hell, a fiery pit reserved for children under three feet tall. So I wasn’t surprised when, in response to a photo of my daughter smiling with her best friend on her first day of care, my mom wrote: “They look like such babies.” Of course, my mom knows little about the daycare system, but it’s not the facilities she blames. It’s my generation of lazy parents, people who don’t want to take responsibility for raising their children, who run back to work because it’s “easier.” Part of me cringes — going to work is easier than spending 12 dizzying hours a day with my toddler. But it’s hardly escapism, or shirking responsibility. I’d rather be with my girl, even on the hard days, but the truth is, my family can’t survive on a single salary; I don’t know many families that can. And yes, I will admit, giving up my career would leave me frustrated and unfulfilled, which would hardly make my child happier or better-adjusted. I want to be a role model for my daughter, not an example of the person she doesn’t want to become.

Of course the crucial question is whether she, whether any of our children, are suffering from spending time in daycare. I think it’s good for my daughter to spend significant time with a diverse group of children, and to learn how to function in a world in which she is not the center of all things. I like that she has to wait her turn and eat the same lunch everyone else eats. Historically, children have grown up in packs, with a variety of familiar caretakers, hence the beloved aphorism, “it takes a village.” Yes, I feel like garbage whenever she cries at drop-off, but the tears stop the moment I disappear. She adapts, and her happiness at the end of the day assures me she has built resilience and confidence, and feels proud of herself and her accomplishments. Yet every time I walk down the block without my stroller, I hear my mother’s voice, whispering she’s too young, the hours are too long, she needs her mother most of all.

In the same breath, my mother also accuses my generation of being “too soft” on discipline. I was spanked as a child, and oh, was I yelled at, but I’m not sure any of it did me much good. I was still a terror of a teenager, and had to learn plenty of serious lessons the hard way. I admit: on several occasions (all related to sleep-strike tantrums), I’ve lost my sh*t and screamed at my daughter. These are not occasions I’m proud of, and the results were poor, at best. Remaining calm doesn’t stop a tantrum, but it doesn’t fuel the hysteria either. While I can’t speak for my daughter, I can say that I feel better when I stay calm and collected through a tantrum, and confident I’ve set a good example on how to manage strong emotions.

I have quite a collection of unflattering photos of my sisters throughout the years, crying and having violent fits.

I’m also skeptical of my mother’s claim that my sisters and I didn’t have tantrums the way my daughter, and the rest of her poorly raised cohorts, do. Being the eldest, I have quite a collection of unflattering photos of my sisters throughout the years, crying and having violent fits. But like most mothers, I doubt myself and my parenting decisions every day. When my daughter hurls herself onto the floor and screams until she resembles an overripe tomato, or tears a toy out of another child’s hand, I cannot help but feel partly, if not mostly, responsible. (Of course when she’s well-behaved and loving, taking an iota of credit doesn’t even cross my mind.) Am I wrong for not instilling the age-old value that children should be seen and not heard? Sometimes, I think I am. But then I remember my own childhood fear of speaking up, my tendency to accommodate to other people’s needs without recognizing my own, and something inside me recoils. Don’t I want my daughter to be brave enough to speak her mind and grab what she wants from life?

Although I live a mere borough away from my childhood home, my mother finds my lifestyle choices bordering on insanity. Why would I pay an exorbitant rent to raise my daughter in a small apartment in a crowded, urban environment when we could live in a nice, spacious house with a big backyard, she wonders. She finds it criminal that I expose my daughter to public transportation instead of investing in a car. My mom views all this as a symptom of my generation’s refusal to grow up and, thus, give up on the wild ambitions and dreams of youth. I see it as giving my daughter the gift of a diverse and stimulating environment rather than confining her to a homogenous landscape she will spend her teenage years longing to escape. Is it childish to align her future dreams with my own? Isn’t that what our parents did, what all parents do, until their children are old enough to disagree and make their own choices?

Instead of getting angry at my mom, sometimes, I try to put myself in her shoes. I imagine what it might feel like to watch the world I know disappear, to witness my values becoming extinct, to be sneered at by children who suddenly know better than I do. For surely, this will come to be. That’s when I realize that comparing one generation with the next is useless. The best we can do as parents is to prepare our children for the world as it is today, as we predict it will be tomorrow, and to work our hardest to make that better tomorrow come to be.

Years down the line, when I see my daughter making choices that I don’t understand, choices vastly different from my own, rather than offering her an “instead,” I hope I remember to first ask “why,” and to really listen to her answer.