I Never Wanted to Ask My Mom For Advice But It's Made Me a Better Parent
The steering wheel slips through my hands, my palms damp with sweat. I press the microphone button and dictate a command: "Call Mom." One ring passes, then another, and I think through the first question I will ask when my mother answers. There's a click, the usual greetings, and a pause. "Mom," I begin, "is this normal?"
In the few weeks leading up to this call, every time my husband or I asked our toddler about preschool, she would offer nothing except for one tidbit she deemed crucial: "I didn't play with Cash." When asked why, the response was always, "He stepped on my foot."
"So, just that one time, three months ago?"
Should I have been overly concerned that my child seemed to hold an intense grudge? Probably not, and yet the tiny moment led me down a spiral of questions about her future social interactions: would she be the angry kid? Could she learn to forgive? Would she one day write a cleverly worded and emotionally gripping memoir of the time her classmate accidentally injured her, and how it thrust her into a lifetime of surface-level friendships and a general distrust of mankind?
My mother, a child psychologist, would almost certainly have the answers, but I was reluctant to ask her. Though I'm now technically an adult, I carry the lingering rebelliousness of adolescence that includes being viscerally opposed to asking my parents for advice.
I had grown up being psychoanalyzed and while my mother was often correct in her diagnoses, I never wanted to give her the satisfaction of being right. In the year following my parents' decision to separate, a stomach ache could never be a simple case of indigestion. "You're thinking about the divorce, aren't you," she would insist, even though we both knew I had just aggressively inhaled yet another bowl of frozen ravioli, soaked in butter, and topped with an avalanche of shelf-stable Parmesan cheese.
I was 7, so my mother's response of psychoanalysis instead of a shot of Pepto was maddening. But now, as a mother to two kids, I think I finally understand where mine was coming from: an ache is never just an ache when it's affecting your baby.
Early in motherhood, I was determined to be the laid-back mom. I wasn't going to read into my child's quirky behaviors. I didn't read a single parenting book, sign up for newsletters, or join internet mommy groups. I was going to wing it, and through my effortlessly laid-back vibe, I would raise the kind of easy-going, well-adjusted child that teachers fawn over and other moms gossip about at school pickup in hushed, jealous whispers.
And then my daughter started doing things that would seem inconsequential to anyone else—cultivated an intense fear of the wind, announced with discomforting regularity that she was going to run away to live at Costco—and a switch flipped. Suddenly I became concerned about things that wouldn't cause my chill alter ego to bat an eyelash.
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So, with no in-person mommy groups to turn to, I one day called my mother. I worried she would begin by analyzing me, sussing out which traumatic event of my childhood has led me to stress over my daughter's shift from Jekyll to Hyde when her frozen blueberries are too cold.
She listened quietly and then, instead of rushing to a solution, said simply: "Thank you for asking me."
My mother—like any good New York-born Jewish mother—finds great joy in giving her opinion, requested or not. I think it bothered her more than she would admit that I hadn't asked.
I was well aware of her desire to offer wisdom; I felt it when we sat in my living room and watched my toddler's expression slide almost imperceptibly from joy to sadness when I doted on my infant. I sensed her start and then stop herself from offering tips on how to encourage my toddler to manage her feelings when her sister snatched her toy. Though I knew she might have some helpful advice to impart, the lingering frustrations from my own childhood left me unwilling to allow her the satisfaction of asking.
Then one afternoon, my daughter was audibly on the verge of an unstoppable meltdown. My mother, who was staying with us for two weeks, crouched down to her level and coached her: "do your birthday candle breaths," a new coping mechanism she had evidently been teaching her. My instinct was to laugh it off: surely this wasn't going to calm her whirling dervish tantrums. It did. Still, I didn't say "thank you for teaching her this." Instead, I added it to my mental "mom toolbox" and started to slowly use it on my own (when my mother wasn't present to witness it, of course).
As I reluctantly incorporated my mom's advice into my parenting techniques, I began to realize maybe she was on to something. Maybe she did know a thing or two about raising a mostly well-adjusted kid. I now call for her professional opinion almost weekly. Sometimes I ask for it outright. Other times, I tell a story and wait for her carefully to dance around offering feedback.
Why was it so hard to let my mother witness her daughter becoming the kind of loving, caring, totally-invasive-but-in-a-good-way parent she has been? What was my compulsion to prove that I can raise my kids without any outside advice? I think about this when my daughter's chin starts to quiver to signal an oncoming meltdown, and I kneel down to meet her at eye level, coaching her to cup her hands around her mouth and take a deep exhale, then basking in the satisfaction of having helped her help herself. I'm sure there's some kind of psychological explanation. Maybe I'll call my mother and ask.