What my troubled mother, and an army of incredible women, taught me about life and love

While my mother’s life reflects the worst of her choices, my life reflects her best.

What my troubled mother, and an army of incredible women, taught me about life and love

In the windowsill next to my mother’s bed at her nursing home is a framed quote that proclaims, “Everything I am, my mother made me.”

I grabbed it from a HomeGoods as a last-minute gift a few years ago, as not to show up empty-handed in one of the rare times that I visited her on Mother’s Day.

I didn’t realize that such a thoughtless gift would end up giving me so much to think about.

My mother, Barbara, is 63 years old, and lies debilitated in her bed, where she has been for at least five years and will remain until her body gives out. A series of strokes over several years crippled her body; a series of misfortunes that has been her life depressed her mind.

When I visit her, the nurses who pass in and out have curiosity written all over their faces about me. Their faces seem full of questions about the polished young woman who shows up, walking confidently through the halls with her designer handbag as if she has the world at her feet.

During my visits, a few of them will trickle in and out of the room just to “check in.” I chuckle that they do think it’s transparent what they’re up to —they’ve come to get their piece of our puzzle to take back to the nurse’s station.

I know when they look at us together they must wonder: Did my mother have anything to do with the woman I’ve become?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself. But it wasn’t until Everly, my 8-month-old daughter, came into my life that I started to explore how daughters are a reflection of their mothers.

I think in the case of me and my mother, I’ve figured it out: While my mother’s life reflects the worst of her mistakes, my life reflects the best of her. And we can both still look each other in the eyes today, and see nothing but love.

My mother and I only had seven years together. And if I’ve ever known unconditional love in my 30 years on earth, it was then.

We did everything together. She made sure I wanted for nothing.

I even slept with her until the age of 6, when I was forced into my big-girl bed kicking and screaming.

But very early on my mother’s love, and her mistakes, created a conflicted world for me.

Her love was obvious to me.

But so were her mistakes, even from a young age. I knew that the green bowl that I would dutifully retrieve for her contained marijuana, and that the men who came to my house with wads of money were there to buy drugs. I knew that my sister wasn’t cooking food in a spoon over the stove burner. I also knew that it wasn’t right that my nephews and I survived for weeks on toast, boiled eggs and whatever canned goods my 7-year-old hands could pry open.

But I also knew that the songs my mother sang to me as she put barrettes in my hair, the way she made sure my purses matched my dresses, the way she showed up in her robe at school if I misbehaved, the lengths to which she went to make sure I had every part of a kitchen set and dollhouses, were all out of love.

Eventually my mother’s love and mistakes collided.

In the summer of 1993, I found my 4-year-old nephew’s bloodied and limp body on our couch. He had overdosed on methadone he’d gotten his hands on after my mother illegally sold it to a neighborhood customer. I was living a nightmare.

And yet, the events that transpired in the weeks after that also showed me the extent of my mother’s love. As her world was unraveling, she tried to preserve mine as much as she could.

Amid a criminal investigation, my mother arranged for me to be in other places. In the end, she sent me to my grandmother’s house, where I would escape the Department of Social Services for some time, and the painful experience of watching her be arrested on our front porch.

In a newspaper article later — yes, in The Baltimore Sun where I have now been a reporter for five years — I would also find out that her love for me was apparent as she faced the consequences for her mistakes.

In pleading to lower her $100,000 bail, the article said, she told the judge that she had a young daughter that she needed to care for.

In the years since then — my mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison — I lived in group homes, foster homes, with an abusive relative, my best friend’s family, and ultimately with a beloved teacher.

Throughout that journey I’ve encountered amazing women who have come to call me their own. They got me through high school, college, graduate school, my first job, my wedding, my first house, my first child. Each of them have contributed to who I am today.

From all of the women in my life who have filled a void that my mother left — these include teachers, bosses, moms of friends—I have attempted to adopt all of their best qualities. Think: a “mom” store, and I had the pick of the best products.

From these beautiful, strong, loving women, I learned the basics: how to wear the appropriate clothes for my body type, the right foundation for my complexion, how to deal with insufferable people, how to be secure in myself and to use my story as powerful motivation in the world.

Mostly, they all stuck to what they knew. My teachers guided me through high school and my two degrees, the one who owned a business taught me how to be successful by respecting and connecting with people, those who had successful marriages guided me through boyfriends, and those who succeeded at raising families made me feel like I was a part of one and in doing that, encouraged me to start one.

I don’t think any of these women felt any particular ownership of me, but they all worked with the piece of me that they had.

They knew that I would only called one woman “mommy,” in my lifetime, and they didn’t expect the title. They understood that I didn’t need to be claimed. I just needed to be loved.

People have often asked me: “How can you even talk to your mother after all that she put you through?”

I’ve had one response: “Because my mother loved me. She just made mistakes.”

As overly simplistic as that answer may seem, I am able to directly connect pivotal moments in my life — from my nephew’s death to writing this column — as if they were pre-destined. It’s almost as if my mother failed in areas of her life so that I may succeed.

Because of her mistakes, I have been to hell. But because of her love, I made it back.

My mother showed me that mistakes will change your children’s lives, but not necessarily for the worst. And even if your children bear the brunt of even your worst mistakes, their ability to persevere is made possible if they start from a foundation rooted in love.

I’m still sorting out everything that I’ve been through.

But, now that I have a daughter I know two things for sure: I know a mother’s love, and I’m not afraid of making mistakes.

And I hope that those balance out in a way that Everly can say with pride one day: “Everything I am, my mother made me.”

After 4 kids, this is still the best baby gear item I’ve ever purchased

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work.

I have four kids 8 and under, so you might expect that my house is teeming with baby gear and kid toys.

But it turns out that for me, the more kids I have, the more I simplify our stuff. At this point, I'm down to the absolute essentials, the gear that I can't live without and the toys my kids actually play with. And so when a mama-to-be asks me what things are worth registering for, there are only a few must-haves on my list.

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer seat is on the top of my list—totally worth it and an absolute must-have for any new mama.

In fact, since I first splurged on my first BABYBJÖRN bouncer eight years ago (it definitely felt like a splurge at the time, but the five star reviews were really compelling), the bouncer seat has become the most-used product in our house for baby's first year.

We've actually invested in a second one so that we didn't have to keep moving ours from the bedroom to the living room when we change locations.

BABYBJÖRN bouncer bliss

baby bjorn bouncer

The utility of the seat might seem counterintuitive—it has no mechanical parts, so your baby is instead gently bounced by her own movements. In a world where many baby products are touted for their ability to mechanically rock baby to sleep, I get that many moms might not find the "no-motion" bouncer that compelling. But it turns out that the seat is quite reactive to baby's little kicks, and it has helped my kids to learn how to self-soothe.


Lightweight + compact:

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer is super lightweight, and it also folds flat in a second. Because of those features, we've frequently stored it under the couch, in a suitcase or in the back of the car. It folds completely flat, which I love.

Entertainment zone:

Is the toy bar worth it? The toy bar is totally worth it. Not only is the toy bar adorable, but it's one of the first toys that my babies actually play with once they discover the world beyond my boobs. The toys spin and are close to eye level so they have frequently kept my baby entertained while I cook or take a quick shower.

Great style:

This is not a small detail to me–the BABYBJÖRN bouncer is seriously stylish. I am done with baby gear and toys that make my house look like a theme park. The elegant European design honestly just looks good in my living room and I appreciate that parents can enjoy it as much as baby.

It's adjustable:

With three height settings that let you prop baby up to be entertained, or lay back to rest, we get years of use. And the bouncer can actually be adjusted for bigger kids and used from newborn to toddler age. It's that good.

It just works:

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work. But I have used the seat as a safe space to put baby while I've worked (I once rocked my baby in it with my foot while I reported on a breaking news story for the Washington Post), and as a cozy spot for my second child to lay while his big brother played nearby. It's held up for almost a decade with almost-constant use.

So for me, looking back on what I thought was a splurge eight years ago, was actually one of the best investments in baby gear I ever made.

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


I never wanted to be a mom. It wasn't something I ever thought would happen until I fell madly in love with my husband—who knew very well he wanted children. While he was a natural at entertaining our nephews or our friends' kids, I would awkwardly try to interact with them, not really knowing what to say or do.

Our first pregnancy was a surprise, a much-wanted one but also a unicorn, "first try" kind of pregnancy. As my belly grew bigger, so did my insecurities. How do you even mom when you never saw motherhood in your future? I focused all my uncertainties on coming up with a plan for the delivery of my baby—which proved to be a terrible idea when my dreamed-of unmedicated vaginal birth turned into an emergency C-section. I couldn't even start motherhood the way I wanted, I thought. And that feeling happened again when I couldn't breastfeed and instead had to pump and bottle-feed. And once more, when all the stress from things not going my way turned into debilitating postpartum anxiety that left me not really enjoying my brand new baby.

As my baby grew, slowly so did my confidence that I could do this. When he would tumble to the ground while learning how to walk and only my hugs could calm him, I felt invincible. But on the nights he wouldn't sleep—whether because he was going through a regression, a leap, a teeth eruption or just a full moon—I would break down in tears to my husband telling him that he was a better parent than me.

Then I found out I was pregnant again, and that this time it was twins. I panicked. I really cannot do two babies at the same time. I kept repeating that to myself (and to my poor husband) at every single appointment we had because I was just terrified. He, of course, thought I could absolutely do it, and he got me through a very hard pregnancy.

When the twins were born at full term and just as big as singleton babies, I still felt inadequate, despite the monumental effort I had made to grow these healthy babies and go through a repeat C-section to make sure they were both okay. I still felt my skin crawl when they cried and thought, What if I can't calm them down? I still turned to my husband for diaper changes because I wasn't a good enough mom for twins.

My husband reminded me (and still does) that I am exactly what my babies need. That I am enough. A phrase that has now become my mantra, both in motherhood and beyond, because as my husband likes to say, I'm the queen of selling myself short on everything.

So when my babies start crying, I tell myself that I am enough to calm them down.

When my toddler has a tantrum, I remind myself that I am enough to get through to him.

When I go out with the three kids by myself and start sweating about everything that could go wrong (poop explosions times three), I remind myself that I am enough to handle it all, even with a little humor.

And then one day I found this bracelet. Initially, I thought how cheesy it'd be to wear a reminder like this on my wrist, but I bought it anyway because something about it was calling my name. I'm so glad I did because since day one I haven't stopped wearing it.

Every time I look down, there it is, shining back at me. I am enough.

I Am Enough bracelet 

SONTAKEY  I Am Enough Bracelet

May this Oath Bracelet be your reminder that you are perfect just the way you are. That you are enough for your children, you are enough for your friends & family, you are enough for everything that you do. You are enough, mama <3


We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


It's science: Why your baby stops crying when you stand up

A fascinating study explains why.

When your baby is crying, it feels nearly instinctual to stand up to rock, sway and soothe them. That's because standing up to calm babies is instinctual—driven by centuries of positive feedback from calmed babies, researchers have found.

"Infants under 6 months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease, compared with holding by a sitting mother," say authors of a 2013 study published in Current Biology.

Even more striking: This coordinated set of actions—the mother standing and the baby calming—is observed in other mammal species, too. Using pharmacologic and genetic interventions with mice, the authors say, "We identified strikingly similar responses in mouse pups as defined by immobility and diminished ultrasonic vocalizations and heart rate."

Keep reading Show less