My mum was born to be a mum. Some little girls dream of growing up to be a doctor or a lawyer, she dreamed of growing up to be a mother. And she did – for the past 30 years she’s made a career out of being a mum. Sure, she’s had odd jobs to bring in a bit of extra cash, but at the heart of it, if you had to sum up her life in a single word, there’s no other word you’d choose. She was the president of the PTA, organised our primary school fete, lobbied for sweatshirts to replace the horrible, itchy woollen jumpers that were part of our school uniform, and when I was in high school, she worked in the school canteen every day for four years.
When I found myself staring down the barrel of motherhood about ten years sooner than I’d anticipated, she was the first person I called. It was one of the hardest phone calls of my life – sadness and disappointment mingled with hope and joy. As my pregnancy progressed, she was the person I called for advice on everything from what to expect during labour to how to fold cloth nappies. When I pictured the type of mother I wanted to be, I saw her. While I wasn’t sure that I was entirely cut out to be a mum, often wondering if there was in fact even one single maternal bone in my ambitious, career-minded body, I knew that my experience of being parented by my mum was the best preparation I could have hoped for. I prayed that with time I might learn to be even half the mother she’d been.
So it came as a shock to find that once I actually had that baby in my arms, I found myself wanting to do things a little differently.
“Don’t rock her to sleep,” my mother told me. “You’ll create a rod for your own back.”
“Don’t let those kids in your bed,” my mother told me. “You’ll never get them back in their own beds.”
“Don’t pick the baby up every time she cries,” my mother told me. “She needs to learn to settle on her own.”
“No dummies,” my mother said. “And you MUST use cloth nappies.”
I respected her advice, I respected her experience. I wanted to do things her way . After all, her way had worked for my siblings and I growing up -we look back on our childhood with fond memories, she was always our soft place to fall. But in my heart, I wanted to rock my little baby to sleep. I wanted to snuggle with my toddlers when they were too scared to stay in their own beds, and to respond intuitively when my baby cried. And when my twins screamed for the best part of 20 hours straight, the lure of the dreaded dummy was just too strong.
So I did things my way. But as I did, I felt so terribly guilty. I felt like I was betraying her – that by deciding to parent my children differently, I was somehow implying that the way she had parented us was wrong. How could I possibly be so arrogant as to presume that I knew better than my mother, the woman who will always have a two-decade headstart on me in the parenting stakes? I hid the dummies away when she came to visit, and when she asked how the babies were sleeping, I lied through gritted teeth rather than admit that they were tucked up in bed beside me.
It wasn’t until after my fourth child was born that I began to feel more confident in my autonomy as my children’s mother. I started to see that different didn’t necessarily mean wrong, and that Mum didn’t perceive me giving the baby a dummy as a personal slight. I realised that parenting differently didn’t make me less of a mother or her more of a mother. We were (and are) two women just trying to raise our kids the best way we know how. Sure, she still goes on about the bloody dummy at any given opportunity, but we’ve found a middle ground upon which I ask her for advice, she offers it, and then I pick and choose what works best for my family.
When she bugged me insistently about getting the twins out of nappies, I smiled and nodded and said, “yes Mum, they’ll get there when they’re ready.”
When she asked about the baby sleeping in our bed for the tenth time, I smiled and nodded and said, “yes Mum, for some people it MIGHT be a rod for their back. But we actually don’t mind, so it’s not a big deal.”
When she expressed her unease with me breastfeeding my preschooler, I smiled and nodded and said, “yes Mum, she’ll wean when she’s ready.”
The baby has a dummy, and I gave up on cloth nappies amidst the chaos of trying to keep on top of the washing generated by five kids and a grubby, greasy truck driver of a husband.
All practical things aside, when it comes to parenting Mum and I still have one fundamental thing in common – the unconditional love for our children. Through all the tough years – the addiction, the relationship dramas, the lowest of the low – she’s continued to be my soft place to fall. She’s still the first person I call when I have good news to share or bad news to debrief. She still slips me $10 for petrol when I’m caught short the day before payday and gets out of bed at 2am to sit with the girls when we need to make late-night hospital dashes. She is always there.
And at the heart of it – far beyond the little (and not-so-little) differences in the way we do things – that’s what matters. That unconditional love. I might not use cloth nappies or let my babies self-settle, but when it comes to loving my girls, I love them the way my mother loves me. I am their soft place to fall, and I’m pretty damn good at it.
I ought to be. I learned from the best.