Life Lessons from a single, working mother
When I was a little girl, I was raised by a single teenage mom. My upbringing was a tragedy in every way possible. I didn’t know much about parenting when I had my eldest daughter at twice her age. As a survivor of child abuse, the biggest strength I had when I became a mother was knowing what NOT to do. I quickly realized I was going to have to figure out what TO DO unless I wanted to start paying for therapy. The list below is one I compiled from all the negatives in my own upbringing. I have converted the lessons of my childhood into growth experiences and I have tried to stay true to their principles. I secretly believe that as mothers we are responsible for what happens in the world. Our children are the leaders of tomorrow.
Keep your promises. If there were only one take away from my upbringing, it would be that an adult’s word meant nothing. I vowed that when I had children, I would not make promises I couldn’t keep. That means I am careful about saying ‘yes’ to all the things children ask for (Disneyland, horses, camping). But on the upside, I rarely disappoint them too badly. Your kids should be able to trust that you are the one person in their life who won’t let them down. Don’t say ‘yes’ unless you are absolutely sure.
Say ‘yes’ whenever possible. They will ask if they can wash your car when it’s going to rain. They will ask to make chocolate cupcakes when it’s time for dinner. They will ask for you to teach them how to drink a honeysuckle blossom, when you have just settled down with a glass of wine. Those were just tonight’s “yes’s”. Your children are always on their own schedule. Their boundless enthusiasms should be indulged whenever possible. Say an enthusiastic ‘YES’ whenever humanly possible. Put down whatever you are doing, and jump into the fray.
And the corollary: if you can’t say yes, then say maybe. Life is filled with infinite possibilities, and your ‘no’ shuts those down and becomes all they will hear in their head. Your limitations are not theirs. If you teach them that magic may exist, then they will build fairy houses and write letters to leprechauns. If you teach them that they may be president of the United States someday, then they will work hard to make that a possibility. My eldest daughter wanted to be president when she was five. A dozen years later she wants to be a Supreme Court Justice. She has made every correct choice because she believes it is a very real possibility. I, on the other hand, was taught how to cook, mix a mean martini and catch a man. Bet you can guess how that worked out.
Apologize. Sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we are just plain grumpy. If you screwed up, then admit you were wrong, and say you are sorry immediately. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame something/someone else. Own up, make a heartfelt apology, and do better next time. I have found the greatest bonding with my children has come from my vulnerability.
Be the bad guy. It’s ok to set consequences to their behavior and actions. If taking away a cell phone or car keys do that, then yes ma’am, set those limits. Not too long ago, my eldest daughter used all my facial masks without permission and I took her car keys for three days. As I explained to her, it’s not about the money; it’s about respecting my boundaries. My youngest daughter consistently forgot to brush her teeth and was told after the hundredth time that if she forgot again I would take her cell phone on the offending day from here on out. I didn’t shout, I was just very clear about consequences and the behavior straightened itself out. Very quickly I may add.
Get along with their other parent. One of the most important skills your children are going to learn from you is how to manage conflict. How you speak to their other parent in their presence, how you resolve disagreements, and the level of civility and respect that you use, are exactly what they will do as well. I have two children at home who both have different fathers. All of us celebrate birthday’s together, holidays together and milestones together. If we have a disagreement (and there are SO many) it is always out of the children’s hearing, or framed as a discussion that can be tabled at any point. One father did not honor this commitment to civility in front of the children last year. Later he sat down to apologize to all of our combined children for how he spoke to their mother. No, I didn’t make him. He realized that his/mine/our children were extremely upset about what he had said to me in anger. Raised voices happen, I have ex-husbands and I totally get it, just never in front of the kids.
Time is about quality not quantity. You may only have thirty minutes at the end of the night, but be present for that entire thirty minutes. Ask them what the best moment of their day was and really listen to the answer.
The world is your classroom. My daughter wrote a story in junior high about how I told her to always leave the world a better place than you found it. She casually threw in that the place I taught her to do this was a public restroom. Wherever you are, that is where your classroom is. If you are a single mom like me, you probably have taken your kid to work with you on more than one occasion. Teach them what it means to be a working mother. If money is short, teach them to budget and prioritize needs versus wants. If there is something they want, teach them to work for it, rather than just giving it to them. This last year, my youngest child had the opportunity to perform at Disneyworld. Every penny of that $900 dollar trip was earned by an eleven year old. Each single day is filled with opportunities to create conversations about living a life with value.
Don’t sweat the small stuff: Spills, table manners, messy rooms, smelly dogs, and chores undone… if no one is dead or on life support, it probably can be fixed.
Never say anything that can’t be unsaid: We all have those tapes from childhood playing in our head of statements made to us, which we remember in lurid detail. One of mine was my mother telling me I embarrassed her. I had to go put clothes on over my bathing suit. She couldn’t “relate” to me being fat. I spent the next two decades battling an eating disorder. My 11 year is old is now admittedly chubby. When I tell her how beautiful she is, she replies “I KNOW mommy.” As if too much repetition of her fabulousness is tedious. Make a list of the things you will NEVER say to your kids. Memorize it. Tattoo it on your ass if you need to. You will save a fortune in therapy later. You’re welcome.
Eat dinner with them every night you can. Lose the phone. Make them food they like, and never make mealtimes a battle ground. If there is one thing I have learned as a chef, it is that so many of our memories from childhood come from food and being fed lovingly. If your kids don’t like vegetables refer to my blog for “food games we play”. If they are picky, make sure the food they like is as healthy as possible, but never battle at the dinner table. Another dinner without a full serving of vegetables will not be the end of the universe as you know it. Relax, make as many dinners from scratch as you can, pour yourself a glass of wine and unplug. Laugh. Tell jokes. Share stories. That is what they will remember. Macaroni and cheese with mommy time; it’s an unbeatable combination.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will. I do. Just wake up each morning with the desire to do your best and to be newly amazed at the wondrous little miracle who is entrusting you with their life. Hug them tightly before they leave the house, and believe they will return to you as whole and complete as when they walked out the door. Forgive yourself completely for the mistakes you make. Try and forgive your parents too while you are at it. If you have struggled financially like I have, you will know that sometimes you have to choose a roof over their head and food on their plate over everything else. Your uninterrupted and focused attention will make up for every vacation you aren’t able to take or material possession you don’t have. Your priorities will form the substance of their character. My eldest daughter was awarded the number two attorney in the nation by the High School National Mock Trial Competition last year. She practiced her closing arguments for four to six hours a day for weeks on end. She is the very embodiment of drive, pure grit and determination. How do I know she learned that from me? Because she told me so.
They are enough. My mother’s voice inside my head has told me throughout my life that I was not enough just by myself and that I needed someone or something else to complete me. Instill the confidence that allows them to walk tall without the need to be defined by another person. We shouldn’t need someone else, a smaller dress size, more money or material possessions to make us happy. They shouldn’t either. You are enough. Say it over and over until you believe it for yourself and then say it to them.
End every day with a hug or snuggle, and by saying, “I love you completely, totally, and unconditionally. You are perfect exactly the way you are. Being your mom is the best thing that ever happened to me”.
You are such an eloquent writer, Gretchen. Thank you for sharing what you have learned throughout your amazing life. Your wisdom blesses me!
and you are a bright and shining light in my life – all my love
Thank you for sharing. I, too, had a not so great upbringing and many of things you mention are things I make sure to do though I wasn’t so sure of why I did all of them. If I say I will do something to my kids I will do what ever it takes to make sure that I follow through. I never thought about why but growing up with an alcoholic parent I knew that adult promises meant nothing so I want to make sure that my children can always trust me. Light bulb moment. Thank you!
great moment – thank you for sharing
I love this! I can’t believe how much we have in common, as far as our upbringings and being a single mom. I was also a victim of child abuse and sexual abuse.
My children are all grown up now, but I vowed to be a better mom than my mom was to me. I didn’t think I did a good job, but my children tell all the time that I was the best mom ever. I was called names and made to feel ugly and ashamed of who I was. I told myself I would never say horrible things to my children or abuse them. Being a mom is a tough job, but I am blessed to have some awesome kiddos. They are the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Thanks for sharing yourself with us… You rock Gretchen!