My extraordinarily wise daughter M once said to me, “Your mommy’s mistakes make you a better mommy.”
She’s so right. My parenting approach is certainly informed by research I’ve read and discussions with other parents, but when I choose what to try, I am looking through the lens of my own childhood. Ultimately, of course, it’s the evidence I see of success with my own daughters that determines whether a particular parenting technique works for us. My daughters’ needs are where my parenting decisions end. My own needs as a child, though, are why my parenting decisions start.
My childhood affects my parenting at every level. I have the opportunity to avoid my own parents’ mistakes with my children. I hope that I have adopted the things that they did right. The way I parent my daughters, I try to be for them who I needed in a mother. Then I tweak the details to be what they need.
My parents were fantastic at communicating to me the value of academic success and helping me develop tools to do well in school. I think that I have been successful in doing the same for my daughters. They love school, love to learn, love to teach, are unafraid to question and dig deeper, and read to a fault.
My parents valued formal academic education to the exclusion of all else. My mother was deeply angered by my pursuit of extracurricular activities, such as choir and yearbook, although she encouraged me to take Indian (Bengali) music lessons. I have chosen, instead, to encourage my daughters to pursue various interests. If their pleasures outside school impinged on their academic performance, I might make different choices, but for now I love their love for their friends, dance, sport, music, Girl Scouts, and play.
The biggest fault I see in my own rearing was a lack of consistency. I was always afraid. I was an adult before I realized that my mother’s explosions of temper weren’t my fault. My father was sometimes there, but mostly travelling for work, and the only thing I could be sure of was that if he said he’d do something, he wouldn’t.
I always got the impression that my parents wanted to have a baby and forgot that the baby would grow. My mother did a great job of explaining menstruation and sex to me, but that was the only topic relevant to adulthood I remember discussing with either parent. My parents didn’t address matters of morality, religion, financial responsibility, career planning, marital success, avoiding peer pressure, or staying healthy. I have chosen to take a very active approach to preparing my children for independent adulthood. We discuss all these topics and I give M and J increasing degrees of freedom in each of these areas over time, allowing them to practice making increasingly adult decisions while I’m still around to catch them and help them work through mistakes.
I knew far more than I ever wanted to about my parents’ extramarital activities. My mother had no filter at all when it came to spewing poison about my father and the details of every other aspect of her life. I am honest with my children, but I protect them as best I can, sometimes by withholding my opinions where they wouldn’t be helpful. They are my daughters, not my friends, and I don’t seek comfort or validation from them. I protect their relationships with their father, stepmothers, and their families, regardless of what has become of my relationships with that part of the family or my opinions about their choices.
I never felt like I turned out to be who my parents wanted their daughter to be. I wasn’t Bengali enough, British enough, family-focused enough, demure enough, angry enough, and definitely not pretty or thin enough. I went to the wrong college in my parents’ eyes because it wasn’t Harvard or Yale. Forbes’ recent identification of my alma mater, Pomona College, as the top US college, felt truly wonderful because it validates my belief that I got the best possible education there, even if my parents were ashamed of my choice. I accept my daughters for who they are, and believe that my job is to help each of them develop the tools she needs to be the most successful M and most successful J she can be. It is not my job to mold them into a preconceived vision of success. Perhaps if my daughters were less naturally successful, this would be a greater challenge, but my kids are incredible. They’re smart, loving, loyal, strong, opinionated, curious, and beautiful. And so, so, funny. Our house is filled with laughter. I don’t remember ever hearing my mother laugh.
Positive external relationships
My mother grew up in an extended family setting and had trouble embracing the Western model of non-familial relationships for my childhood. She actively resisted my efforts to pursue friendships and mentoring outside the nuclear family. As a single mother, I know how important it is for my daughters to have a community of friends and mentors to draw from, as well as positive male role models in their lives. I encourage and enable their development of strong relationships with classmates, neighbours, teachers, their peers’ parents, and my friends. We have many family-to-family relationships, where all the adults and all the children love and respect one another. When J and M naturally pull away from me to develop their adolescent identities, I want my daughters to have positive, stable role models to turn to.
My mother prides herself on being an iconoclast, a trait I certainly share with her. I’m not one to do things just because everyone else is doing it. However, I am able to see value in what everyone else is doing. We had hardly any family traditions, and I feel like I missed out. I have been thoughtful in creating traditions for and with my daughters, from our Christmas tree and Jesus’ birthday cake on December 25, to our nightly Q&A.
I have tried to be to my daughters the mother I wish I had. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of it.