Conventional wisdom says that we learn how to parent from our own parents. But in the months since my son’s birth, I’ve found myself reflecting on how my mother and father raised me, mimicking their phrases and seeking their advice as I make decisions.
A great deal of how I parent does come from their example but, how I define motherhood and how I set expectations for my own experience, is driven by a much broader collection of examples set by women whose paths I crossed long before I even held my son in my arms.
When I was a teenager, I spent six summers working as a lifeguard. I loved the job. I spent time outdoors, hung out with my friends and tanned on my breaks. I taught swim lessons and organized Fourth of July activities, hosted birthday parties and taught water aerobics. I plucked thousands of wet cheerios from the pool deck and put endless Band-Aids on endless skinned knees.
I blew my whistle for adult swim and for thunder and to slow little running feet. I jumped in a handful of times, adrenaline pumping, to pull a child to safety. Mostly though, hour after hour, year after year, I sat and watched.
And, as I sat and I watched, I began to study motherhood.
In my early teens, my observations were shallow—I noticed the swimwear each mom chose and tried to determine if she’d lost her “baby weight.” I looked at the cars they drove and wondered if they worked or stayed at home and what they did with their kids when they weren’t at the pool. I listened to their kids names and tried them on for size with my own last name. I made lists in the margins of my books of the best names, the worst names, the silly things I’d heard kids fighting about that day.
As I matured, I began to think about what I wanted for my own life.
As I considered how I might shape my future, I started to look more critically at the different family structures and parenting styles I saw each day. In some families, the mother’s spouse joined them exclusively on Saturdays. Kids from other families came to swim with a babysitter each day, and their mother showed up later, sometimes in a business suit, sometimes in her swimsuit.
Some mothers hovered over their children, choreographing every social interaction, while other moms rarely looked up from their books.
Sitting in the same chair for six years gave me a unique perspective of these families. I watched dynamics change as children aged or siblings were added. I was surprised to learn that parents grew too, that they evolved each summer to meet the needs of their ever-growing children.
When my then-boyfriend and now-husband joined the lifeguard staff the summer after our senior year of high school, I quizzed him and memorized his answers. I wanted to know what he thought of these families, of the mothers, because I wanted to know what he expected a mother, and a family, to act and look like.
Which parents did he like best? What families did he think were cool? How many kids were too many? Should moms be free to wear whatever swimsuit they wanted or should they stick to skirted one-pieces?
There were several mothers I was particularly interested in.
There was a mother of six who homeschooled and cooked and crafted. Her children were polite, kind and thoughtful and seemed to love playing with one another as much as they did their friends. She brought the lifeguards cookies every week and shared her gratitude for the safe space we created for the neighborhood kids. I overheard her once, deep in conversation with one of her friends, sharing the simultaneous joy and sorrow she felt with each milestone her youngest reached. She told me in passing once how quickly children grow up.
Another woman I admired had two little boys, two years apart. Their energy and laughter was contagious and she never hesitated to jump in the pool and play with them. In the evenings, as the boys piled into their minivan, they looked tired and happy. She told me once that she loved her boys more deeply than she ever thought was possible, but that they “ruined” her career.
When I was a junior in high school, a new family joined the pool. The mother swam laps with her baby sitting on her kick-board and always stopped by the guard table to chat before she left. One afternoon, after I asked how she was able to come to the pool so often, she told me she and her husband both worked and that she had waited to have her daughter until they could both cut back their hours and share equally in the parenting duties.
Laughing, she told me to make sure I married someone who wouldn’t think he was special just for getting up to change a diaper in the night. She also shared something I’d never heard before, that love for a baby is sometimes slow to develop, but that time was key to helping it grow.
These women, open and generous, were unaware that their input was shaping my views on what it meant to be a mother. Their example, their work schedules, their parenting styles and reflections, helped me develop my own expectations and desires around motherhood. I listened to their advice and tucked it away, hoping that one day I would have the experience to understand what being someone’s mom really felt like.
During my college years I continually defined and redefined what I wanted out of life. I knew I wanted a career, a marriage, motherhood and deep, lasting friendships, but I didn’t know how to shape my life in such a way that nothing got left out. I searched for more women to watch, more mothers to study, to show me how it might be possible.
I listened intently as an English Literature professor explained the nuances of a poem that described the bodily intensity of new motherhood. I took notes when my sociology professor, a brilliant woman with three daughters, talked at length about the logistical and emotional difficulties of going back to work weeks after a baby is born and then continuing to work, with a baby, a toddler and a school-aged child. The challenges she described seemed never-ending, but, then again, there she was.
I learned of the stress and worry that sometimes comes with parenting when the woman whose children I watched shared with me that, at times, her dreams were haunted by the thought of not registering her daughter for camp in time. She cried once, when a last minute doctor’s appointment for her mother came up and I had to volunteer in her daughter’s preschool class in her place.
Married later in life and caring for her aging parents, this mama was tired. She told me to have kids as soon as I could, that I should take advantage of my youth and energy and the ability I would have as a young mother to put my children first.
Babysitting again in graduate school, I met a mother who breastfed her daughter until she was 2-years-old. What once seemed foreign to me began to look normal. I listened as she described her parenting philosophies and shared the dreams she had for her daughter. This woman, a stay-at-home mother, talked at length about the privilege and sacrifice that full days with her daughter were. I learned about attachment parenting and baby wearing and sensory play. She shared my excitement when I became pregnant the first time, my sorrow when I miscarried; she told me that I would be a mother someday and that, when I was—I would be a wonderful one.
These mothers of my past were generous with their experiences and their advice. The bits and pieces that they shared offered me glimpses into what motherhood could be. And after my son was born, my awe for these women grew.
Motherhood is just so much. It is as wonderful and as difficult they had described, but it has an intensity I did not anticipate. I found myself wanting deeply to reach out to all of them, to thank them for their words and for their example and to tell them that I finally understood—that I was one of them now.
If I could talk with these mothers now, I would share that, to me, parenthood is joy and sacrifice. That I don’t think my career is ruined, and that the love I have for my child came both slowly and all at once. I’d tell them that I married a man who gets up at night to let me sleep and that dropping my newborn at the sitter after maternity leave really was so, so hard.
I would tell them that sometimes the worry is overwhelming, that I understood now how plastic and pollution and missed school forms can be scary. I would tell these mothers that I’m glad I had my son while I am young, that I nursed him until he was 16-months-old and that I still wear him any chance I get. I want these women to know that my motherhood, while not identical to any of theirs, has been shaped by their example and that, without their words and thoughts and models, my experience would have been so much more difficult.
Last summer I joined a pool in my new hometown. I enrolled my son in swimming lessons and took great joy in watching him giggle as he realized that his feet could create a splash, his hands a ripple. My boy loves the water. One afternoon, when class was over, the teenager teaching lessons asked if she could hold my son. She gushed over his curls and laughed when he smiled at her. We talked about where she wants to go to college and what she wants to be when she graduates.
She told me that she wants to be a mom someday, when she’s a lot older, and asked me what it’s really like, being a mother.
I had a lot to tell her.