Monday, August 1, 2011

Things I Learned from Other Mothers

Most new parents lament that babies do not come with instruction manuals. However, if we're lucky, we can learn a thing or two from the other mothers around us. I know I sure did.

Odette is a mother of four children who lived next door to us in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. We've lost touch over the years, but I was always astonished by how calm she was, how well behaved her children were, and how clean her house was. When we first met her, Steve and I only had two children - and that was plenty. Watching her juggle four inspired us to take the plunge and have a third.

So here are some of the things Odette taught me.

If you tell a child to do something, make sure he or she does it, even if it requires you getting up, holding the child's hand, putting the hand on the toy, closing the child's fingers around the toy, walking the child to the toy box and dropping the toy in the toy box. Several times. The message here is: I am serious about this, and it's not about my being too lazy to do the job myself. (This works best with very young children; teenagers tend to bite harder.)

The baby! It has teeth!
(Julia Roberts as an infant.)
Five minutes at a time. There are days when life just slides off the rails. Everyone has the stomach flu, the baby's teething, hubby is traveling for work, and the toilet stopped working. If you're like me, it's easy to get mired into thinking that things will never get better, that your husband will come home to find you and the children dead and surrounded by vomit and backed-up toilet, except for the baby who will have sprouted a full set of teeth.

You can tolerate almost anything for five minutes. I can't tell you how many times I've encouraged myself to hang in for just five more minutes. Often, the worst is over by then. Sometimes not, and you have to bear up for another five minutes. But it's JUST five minutes. On the bright side, I've had friends show up with dinner, or colicky babies fall asleep when I thought there was no end in sight.

One of Odette's paintings
Make time for you. We've all heard this one, but we mothers don't always do it, or don't really understand how that plays out. (Does taking a bubble bath count?) Odette was a self-taught artist who painted in acrylics and oils. She made time to be creative, whether that meant scheduling a weekly naptime date with me or going to the community centre in the evening. She also went to the gym regularly.

I remembered her lesson when I was a weekday single mother with four kids under the age of eight at home (Steve was on a course in Toronto for nine months). I booked a babysitter and signed up for a stained-glass course. It helped immensely!

My Aunt Vera had seven children and a seemingly boundless supply of energy. Honest to goodness, I have no idea how she coped, but she did more than just cope, she thrived as did the people around her.

Here are some of the things Aunt Vera taught me.

Always cook extra. I don't think I ever witnessed a meal at her home where it was just the nuclear family. (I suppose my being there already made it extended family, at least.) Usually there would be cousins from one branch or another, plus a couple of teenagers or kids she was watching for a neighbour. The food wasn't fancy (they were far from rich), but it was like the parable of the loaves and the fishes - it just never seemed to run out. What it meant was that young people, especially young adults, always had a place to be part of a family, because that's what the meal meant.

Make time for hubby. My Uncle Doug was fortunate to live within walking distance of home, so he came home for lunch most days. After eating, he would lie down on the couch with his head in Aunt Vera's lap. I realize this sounds exceedingly gross, but she would clean his ears. I think he just found it soothing, and more than anything, she was just being there for him.

Aunt Vera's hair was also red and piled on her head
in a series of stacked and interlooped rings.
Just because everyone else does things a certain way doesn't mean it's right for you. Aunt Vera never got a driver's license*. Imagine: seven kids and no driver's license! And she didn't get a washer and dryer until most (all?) of the kids had left home. Instead, Uncle Doug (or later, one of the older kids) would drop her off at the laundromat in the morning once a week. She would load nine people's worth of laundry into the machines then go next door to get her hair done. (It was a Marge Simpson affair, stacked like a wedding cake atop her head. It was not a loose updo like we have today, but an architectural construction fortified by hairspray and bobby pins. It probably took most of the morning for the stylist to wash, colour and set it.) She would be picked up at the end of the day having spent time looking after herself as well as taking care of housework. Brilliant!

*Note: Not having a driver's license never served as an impediment to her ability to direct the driver. She was a very participative passenger.

I also learned some things from mothers I never met.

From Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk", I learned some empathetic communication techniques. They have been known to defuse a bomb once or twice, though our kids would probably not know it. One of my favourites is the echo of wishful thinking: when a child is whining ("I don't want to go to pre-school!"), instead of stating that he or she has to go, try voicing the child's fantasy, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could go to pre-school only on the days we felt like it?" Surprisingly, I don't recall this ever backfiring on me.

I may do a "part two" on this topic, because I'm sure I've forgotten some of my mentors.

1 comment:

  1. All wonderful advice! Now if only I can remember it all....


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