Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mother Knows Best

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This is the last entry from my book, "All About Motherhood, A Mom for All Seasons and Other Essays" (  Next week, back to blogging. Above, Grandma Virginia and Ben, circa 1991. Even though you're no longer "with" us,  I still hear you, Mom. 

Everything I ever needed to know about child-rearing, I probably could have learned from my mother.  Neither scientists nor childcare experts taught me about the healing power of a mother's touch, and before I ever read a baby manual my mother alerted me to the value of patience.  I didn't need a pediatrician or the Surgeon General to convince me that breast was best; my mother's encouragement said it all.
          Even though times change and practical advice is updated, certain maternal truths seem only to ripen: they dangle but never really fall from our tree of knowledge.  What contemporary law of nature decrees that a new mother  has to pave her own way without the aid of older, outmoded moms?  How often must we hear the phrase, "Listen to your mother!" before we pay attention?
          My mother, who doesn't travel well or often, made the three-hour trip to Manhattan to visit me in the hospital when I had my first baby. Naturally, she wanted to see her grandson, but I believe it was her loyalty to me that made her fight traffic and her own fear of the unfamiliar.  When I heard her voice outside my hospital room I wept with sheer relief; nothing could have brought more comfort and solace than my mother's reassurance in those early days with my newborn.
          When I had my second child, my father was very ill.  My mother, who cared for him, couldn't make it to my home until the baby was more than a week old.  Then one morning she simply appeared on my doorstep. "It's just something she had to do," my father explained when I called to tell him she'd arrived safely, "She just wouldn't rest until she'd seen that baby."  When I gave birth again, five years after my father's death, my mother, of course, came to be with us.
          Whenever I wasn't holding or nursing my newborn babies, my mother rocked them.  If a visitor put my baby into the crib, my mother swiftly gathered her grandson up in her arms.  I never needed to ask my mother, "Do you think I should pick him up?"  She was already reaching for the baby, holding him out to me, reinforcing my instinctual desire to nurture him.  The concept of spoiling a baby? Unheard of by my mother.
          At times, my mother offers practical advice, but her words float gently, like harmless bits of goose down.  She's given me useful nuggets for rainy days and summers: "Let them eat on the picnic table outside" or "Pack them a lunch as if you're going to the woods."  Prepare a schedule for the day, she advises, plan activities in writing and enlist the children's help. Take a paper bag and go for a walk, collecting leaves, rocks, feathers.  These are the same tactics she used with her own three children years ago; time hasn't altered their value one bit.
          When one of my children is sick, my mother never hesitates to say, "Call the doctor!" and though I haven't always followed her suggestion immediately, nine out of ten times a doctor, indeed, was required.  But most important is my mother's example: she never spanked or struck any of her children, and her words of discipline were always measured with a gentle tone. Throughout her life, my mother has believed that children deserve respect, care, and patience; her larder of harsh words and penalties has always been empty.  To calm a crying child, to punish a naughty one, to assuage a child's anger, my mother uses the same method: scoop the child into your arms, hold him, sing to him, and love him.
          The world is full of new ways, uncharted paths, new techniques and discoveries, but that doesn't mean our mothers' advice is stale or unworthy.  Some find it fashionable to criticize their mothers.  Others must reject the past in order to forge the future, and sometimes, when I'm tired or feeling fiercely independent, I'd very well like to tell my mother to keep her thoughts to herself.  She had her chance to raise children; now it's my turn.
          But deep down, I know that our mothers' advice isn't an obstacle to our progress; rather, it's a stepping-stone we all need to get to where we're going.  Whenever I really listen to my heart, I hear my mother's voice, and I know that despite the passage of time, her words will always ring right and true.

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