When I was a young mother, someone told me about the four stages of motherhood: You start as a caretaker then become a teacher, transition into a mentor, and finally, you end up a friend.
The disorientation new motherhood brings begins the moment you become pregnant. Suddenly, your mental and chronological ages don't quite match. When your child is born, a parade of doubt begins: Am I an idiot to think I am mature enough to handle such a big responsibility? How will I conquer this frickin’ car seat? Why is my baby’s crap yellow? After weeks of midnight and 3 a.m. feedings, mommy brain dementia takes its insidious hold. All you crave is a simple conversation with another adult, but mastering such a feat is rarely possible. All you can do is smile, nod and pray you don’t throw your baby out with the bath water.
The first year life is consumed by endless hours of wiping and cleaning: from noses, butts and drool to counters, pacifiers and blouses stained with breast milk. My oldest child had a tendency to projectile poop whenever he nursed. I never went anywhere without a spare set of clothes for him – and for me.
Still, nothing compares to the elation you experience when your child giggles, speaks their first word or takes their first step. When your embrace instantly calms their cries, you're provided the serenity you desired. You realize you are the uniquely qualified expert in whatever concerns your child.
The next dozen years or so, your role shifts to teaching and a handful of go-to lessons: “Say please.” “Say thank you.” “Don’t touch!” Diplomas and degrees can't prepare you for this — you pretty much wing it. You watch other parents. You discern what works for your family. You strive for the best. During the teaching phase, your child's intellect is nurtured, their sense of self is established, their respect for the world around them is developed and their values are fostered. No pressure.
Mothers also grow the most during this time. Your maternal instinct cultivates protection, guidance and adaptation. The best laid plans are laid to waste when a child unexpectedly vomits on the sofa or develops a fever. Parenting practices are different for each child — their individuality demands modification.
My husband and I utilized the “ta-ta” technique. Each time one of our children reached for something off-limits (such as a hot stove or my glass of wine) we would lightly tap the back of their hand and say: “No, no! Ta-ta!” This worked beautifully for our first child. The words barely escaped our lips before he jerked his hand away, tiny tears pooling in his eyes. Our second child was a different story: He responded to "ta-ta" with a look that said, “I’m going to do it anyway!” just before thrusting his hand in my face. His personality, we soon learned, overflowed with Italian obstinacy.
Middle school and high school signals a parent's shift into mentoring – the hardest job of all. Suddenly, everything is scrutinized, judged and challenged. If your kids are listening at all, that is. To mine, 90 percent of the sweet, helpful and loving counsel I offered, likely sounded like the “Wa, wa-wa” of the adults in a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon. Your kids no longer coo “Mama” and “Mommy.” Instead, they shout annoyed version of “Mo-om!” What were my adorable, plump-cheeked cherub boys, became hairy, ravenous, stinky beasts. Their rooms (and physiques) reeked with the aroma of an unkempt locker room and the lingering scent of Axe body spray.
Still, whether they know it or not, you have become their role model. They register everything you do: What are your priorities? How do you handle adversity? How do you balance your family, work and personal lives? Mentoring means letting your kids make their own decisions, while providing a safe haven for them to fall back on. It is not hovering. It is not clearing the way to make things easier. It is the having the faith they are capable of traversing their own path, overcoming obstacles and learning from their mistakes. It is granting them a sense of accomplishment, while providing direction and support when required.
Today, I am a Generation X-er about to release my barely matured millennials into the world. The years have sped by, in what also feels like an eternity. How did I get here? Aren’t I still enchanted by my own innocence? Weren’t they just my precious bundles of joy? My body may be weary from riding the parenting seesaw of failure and success, sorrow and rejoicing, but my mind and heart are gratified. Looking at my fully grown college boys, I'm reminded of my own carefree coed days of breakfasts in the quad and impromptu dancing to Kenny Loggins’ "Footloose." I pray my sons will experience the same jubilation. We’ve come to the point — mother and sons — where discuss matters as peers: Political opinions, the difficulties of an unfair boss or professor and religious debates are all fair game. Occassionally, I’ve even consulted them for advice or encouragement.
Exuding the new-car smell of young adulthood, my boys are packed and ready to go. They possess the same authentic anticipation and unsullied optimism for the future I had decades ago. But no matter what they do or where they go, one central truth remains the same: I am always their mother.