Orienteering Through Motherhood, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:01am


Those of you battling teenagers, stop briefly, and let gratitude course through your body. Crazy? I live in the world of adult children, and I may believe in the value of well-fought teen years.

My children and I, we did without. During their teens I was either working, traveling, and gone a lot, or focused on the various impacts of a marriage’s final years. When I wasn’t around, we couldn’t fight. When I came home, I was tired, and so happy to see them I wouldn’t. And as my marriage ended I refused, feeling most of all the need to keep experienced hostilities of any sort to a minimum.

So now we’re sorting it all through. Which doesn’t mean tantrums, staying out too late, muteness, or the consumption of too much food and illicit substances. Or, if those things happens, the kids are grown, and their choices belong to them. Some tantrums might even be mine.

I am simply catching up as a mother. With little children, you are almost all mother. Your other-than-mother self emerges, bit by bit, as the children grow up. Doing this well is hard. Never mind the difficulties teenagers go through. I mean the difficulties in understanding of what part of us remains still as a mother, and what part can shift, relocate, evolve.

I imagine that battling teens, done with the perspective that adults aren’t perfect and teenagers not yet adults, must help map out the right mother and adult child relationship. Must help burn out new mother territory, albeit with some blackened trunks left behind.

Lacking this time of teen battles, my kids and I are regrounding without fire, if you will. Imagine someone frozen with a mother-to-person ratio appropriate for kids 10 and 7. That’s when I first went back to work full time. The degree of intentional shifting required should become clear. And clarity about shifting also brings clarity about what stays put.

Huh? Explain?

As the mother of young children, you protect them from the world, including any dangerous parts of your self. At least I did. Or, to be precise, I tried my best. Physical risk first and foremost. When they were little, we operated on a concept called “Natural Consequences.” Meaning, if your child is climbing somewhere risky, and you fear their fall, assess the consequences. If the natural worst outcome is something you can tolerate, i.e. a broken arm vs. a broken head, let them climb. But in terms of emotional risk, I kept my own boundaries as strong as ever I could. No rages, no indulging my own emotions at their expense, no encroachment on their coping capacity.

As they grow older, I think I’m starting to apply the construct of natural consequences to our relationship. Keep separate only what I know I must, share and reveal the rest. If the best protection is teaching children to care for themselves, emotionally as well as physically, engaging with authenticity, humility, courage, and humor is the best course.

There is one catch to this approach. Our adult children know a lot. More perhaps than they have told us, and they may decide to tell us now. It may not be comfortable. Protecting them, then, in the true sense, sometimes means being willing to remap our own concept of our selves. When they are kids climbing, you’re sitting safely on a red gingham tablecloth in the shade. When you find new ground with your adult children, you’re out there too. Painted daises long gone.

In retrospect, maybe I’m glad I didn’t have the teen years. I can imagine it would have been hard to stay rational and absorb the words of an angry and unlearned 15 year-old. It’s even hard to take in what I hear from the grownups my little ones became. But if I did my job right, all along, then I have to believe that what they tell me has merit.

When they are young you protect them from the world and from yourself. As they get older you let them experience the world and absorb and learn from harm and failure. Eventually, you have to let them experience you as a person, and learn from that harm and failure too. To a point. The key is locating that point very precisely. A virtual red pin. And understanding that you too have to be willing to learn from said shared harm and failure.

To mother well you have to accept that you’ll be changed forever. And yes, I hear the young women chanting, “Not me, not me, not me.” I don’t mean that you’ll never again travel to Borneo. I just mean you’ll still be a mother, there in Borneo, all juicy green leaves and apes. The choice of how said change manifests, however, is up to each of us. Given the enormous resources I’ve been granted, I allow myself few excuses for getting motherhood wrong.

Mothers of little ones get their authority from necessity. They know without a doubt how many goldfish crackers they allow, how many pieces of candy, how many bedtime stories. That’s what produces the loving but slightly exasperated voice of those good days. You know the voice I mean, that territory. Nobody’s faking it, nobody’s losing it, everybody’s cared for. That’s what I’m trying for. We do the best we can for the rest of our lives.

30 Comments

  • 08/20/11
    10:21 am

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    valentine said...

    Very profound, Lisa. I wanted to be the best mother I could be. Adoption was all that was available to me…twice. I’m glad I’m a mother of grown children…and yes, I am a different kind of mother now. It’s wonderful to have the time with adult children before the (if any) grandchildren come. To show them that their father and I have a life outside of their existence. I hope they understand me for being who I am now.

  • 08/20/11
    10:23 am

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    KK @ Preppy Pink Crocodile said...

    Beautifully written post!!

  • 08/20/11
    10:46 am

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    K-Line said...

    This post is fantastic – I agree with you entirely about so many elements – specifically how a mother is forever changed (and in ways that are not visible to the naked eye). Firstly, why would you have children if, on some level – even if it is unconscious, you weren’t prepared to change? Mothering is like captaining a ship. You can’t control the weather. You can only hope you have the navigation skills to keep you afloat.

  • 08/20/11
    11:16 am

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    Lori Dominguez said...

    Bravo Lisa, excellent post !! I agree with you, I am a different Mother at age 53 with two sons 28 & 26 than I was in their teens. thank you for such great insight…..

  • 08/20/11
    12:02 pm

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    metscan said...

    Thank you for a great post.
    I am sure that every mother tries to be a good mother. And every mother is the best mother for her child.
    We work with the tools we got the best we can.

  • 08/20/11
    12:18 pm

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    Pam said...

    Wow, Lisa.

  • 08/20/11
    12:42 pm

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    kathy peck leeds said...

    I battled my daughter during her teen and early college years. Wow – glad it’s over. We now have a wonderful, and relatively peaceful, and very close relationship. Although I was working and divorcing during her teen years, it didn’t seem to stop her from battling with me, and in a way, I’m glad for that. Part of me is glad because it was age appropriate for her, and she was forceful enough that she didn’t let my problems stop her from doing what she needed to do, but mostly I’m glad it’s behind me.
    Wonderful post, so much to think about. Thanks – you never phone it in Lisa.

  • 08/20/11
    1:09 pm

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    Susan Tiner said...

    Lisa, this is a wonderful post. I’ve already told you about my process. My adult kids feel free to tell me exactly what they think about everything, including me. Sometimes it’s hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • 08/20/11
    2:24 pm

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    Parnassus said...

    Balancing the parent-of-teenagers role that you have described above are the values, traditions, standards and even sense of humor that children have experienced all along. These will determine what boundaries they will push and which choices they will make.

    Reading your blog gives me an idea that in spite of the worries you mention, you have supplied all kinds of support. All that remains then is to trust them.
    –Road to Parnassus

  • 08/20/11
    2:28 pm

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    une femme said...

    That voice, yes. This is so beautifully written.

  • 08/20/11
    2:43 pm

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    hostessofthehumblebungalow said...

    Lisa you’ve done it again…
    such a thought provoking post, profound.
    Kudos to you.

    I made mistakes, I am human.
    I always loved and adored my children but tended to be overprotective and honestly I liked being in control. That only worked for a few years and then they put me in my place. They taught me a lot about me as a person!

    My kids tell me what they think today without sugar coating it…
    I have to accept that and be content.

    My family mean the world to me.

  • 08/20/11
    4:59 pm

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    Marsha @ Splenderosa said...

    Lisa, I always learn from your writings. As a mother of grown-up adult kids I totally understand what you’re saying, I think it’s been hard for me to remain silent and on the sidelines as I see some of the decisions they have made, but as you said it has all turned out OK. Learn by doing. That’s motherhood. And, oh thank goodness for my aunts, grandmother and mother all the way along the journey.
    Sending love…..

  • 08/20/11
    5:59 pm

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    RoseAG said...

    I had a good friend who once told me that her family would rather discuss the details of their finances than talk about their feelings.

    It sounds like YOU were battling during your kids teen years, but it was, in truest WASP fashion, not discussed out loud.

    It’s good to have some air-clearing now before the concrete of their lives solidifies into what they experienced with yours.

  • 08/20/11
    8:39 pm

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    Staircase Witch said...

    A few days ago my sister sent me a picture of my older niece, age eleven, taken while she was away at summer camp for the first time. She is tall for her age and developing quickly…too quickly, as so many young girls seem to be these days (is it hormones in milk and meat? too much soy? Something’s wrong here). She looks about seventeen, and she is absolutely stunning in a black Irish way–very dark hair, creamy white skin, deep, intense blue eyes. She is very, very intelligent and reading and thinking far ahead of her peers, but she is very much a child emotionally, heading into middle school, which I recall as the worst time in my life. I am terrified for her. But I remind myself constantly that just as I found my way, just as X found his, she is bright and thoughtful and will continue, even in the face of suffocating cultural and family constraints and expectations (the sort from which your children undoubtedly did not suffer), to find hers. I can only provide an escape hatch and hope she chooses to use it once in a while.

  • 08/20/11
    10:36 pm

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    toad said...

    Lisa, independently my bride and I each have similar yet slightly different missing the teen years stories. I’m very happy that we have made great strides in recovering those years with our kids. I hope they are better for it, I know we are.

  • 08/21/11
    12:32 am

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    Mildred said...

    Wonderful insights here. And, as always, beautifully written. This would make a great short story, nudge.

  • 08/21/11
    8:18 am

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    Buckeroomama said...

    I took my time reading this, savoring your thoughts on the matter. Reread this a few more times.

    We all do the best we can… and pray that our ‘best’ is not iota short of what our children deserve.

  • 08/21/11
    8:20 am

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    Buckeroomama said...

    Not one iota short…. was what I meant to write. :)

  • 08/21/11
    8:57 am

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    Javi said...

    So, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and while I’ve enjoyed each and every single one of your posts – this one rung very close to home. So close, in fact, that I had to comment on it.

    I am a first time mother to a precocious, stubborn, loveable little 11 month old girl. So far, each and every single day has been a “what the hell am i doing? Am i even doing this right?!” type of day for me. All I want is to do the best and be the best for her, in every way possible.

    With little to no support, having completely given up my career to stay at home with her, no friends to give me a sense of balance or even slight sanity, and a marriage that is questionable right now – I’ve been feeling a lot like an island.

    What a refreshing breath of air to read your post and see your feelings on the same topic – but on the other side of “childhood” of your children whereas i’m still at the very beginning of it. There is hope :)

    Thank you.

  • 08/21/11
    4:28 pm

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    materfamilias said...

    Too much to think about in time to respond meaningfully here, but I want to comment that our relationship with our adult children (and mine, as you know, are older than yours and one is herself a mother), one also deals with those versions of ourselves that they have internalized and then project. So that even when we believe we are dealing with them as adults, as something closer to equals, they will often feel themselves infantilized somehow, subconsciously at least. Tricky terrain across which we navigate together as best we can. So far, I mostly find it a joyful trek, but sometimes it’s an exhausting one. A thoughtful post for which I thank you!

  • 08/21/11
    8:22 pm

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    Terri said...

    I like your approach. Frankly, I found the young adult years the MOST challenging. The children often expected that mom and dad would keep bailing them out of adult dilemmas…and it was hard, hard, hard to turn our backs and let them deal. But at long last, I think we have reached an understanding with them by now (age range 24-35).

    Developmentally, I think it is important for teen children to rebel somehow. Something is missing if they don’t.

  • 08/22/11
    4:11 am

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    Marcela said...

    I love you motherhood posts so much. There’s so much wisdom in your words.
    This paragraph “With little children, you are almost all mother. Your other-than-mother self emerges, bit by bit, as the children grow up. Doing this well is hard. Never mind the difficulties teenagers go through. I mean the difficulties in understanding of what part of us remains still as a mother, and what part can shift, relocate, evolve.” rings particularly true to me, and is something I am still learning. My children (twins) turned 3 yesterday and I feel that I have had to rediscover myself-and to a certain point, to reinvent myself as they grow too. The mother I am completely overtook the woman I was before them and it was only after their first 18 months of life that I started to give space to those other parts of me that were taken over by mothering. And it is an ongoing process.
    Regarding the rebellion of the teenage years, I didn’t have that either, I felt that there were too many problems in my home and that I couldn’t cause my parents-mostly, my mother- an extra problem by being selfish and unreasonable. As I grew older, in my mid and late twenties, we went through a period as the one you seem to be going through with your children: a lot of talking. It was sometimes hard but it was necessary to be able to see each other as humans, as independent adults who sometimes make mistakes but who always try their best and love each other very, very much.

  • 08/22/11
    8:09 am

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    Stephanie @ La Dolce Vita said...

    With one early teen and one pre-teen, I see the harbingers of upcoming battles. Right now, we can usually keep it calm and rational, but oh how I needed this. And I think very few people could realize how profoundly you change once you are a mother until they have experienced it. So many good and interesting things to take away from this post.

  • 08/23/11
    12:29 pm

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    marge said...

    That you see how skipping the teenage rebellion is penny wise for a stressed out mom, but pound foolish for the kids and, ultimately, a genuine relationship between you, is kind of amazing. I mean, many parents congratulate themselves that their kids were well behaved, and then wonder why they don’t have grandchildren. That was certainly my deal, and that of cousins, other peers. It took me a while to work through separation stuff, and bringing my parents into it…not an option. I ended up sorting things in time to have my own family, and I’m grateful for the trip, but it is not an efficient way to go. Anyway, you’re kids are lucky!

  • 08/24/11
    11:01 am

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    Lisa said...

    valentine – Congratulations on your two kids. Adoption has so many hurdles, when it finally comes true the joy is amazing. Good luck with grandkids, right there with you:).

    KK – Thank you so very much.

    K-Line – Yes, the stretch marks are sort of nothing, in the end. It’s all the sailing, I agree.

    Lori – Thank you very much for reading, and for your comment.

    Mette – Thank you. I wonder if every mother is the best mother for her child, but I know we are the only ones they get, usually, so we’re all working to do the best we can:).

    Pam – Thank you.

  • 08/24/11
    11:02 am

    Reply

    Lisa said...

    Kathy – Thank you. You must have a brave daughter, battling with you even as her parents split. Good for her, good for you.

    Susan – It’s a very clear frankness.

    Parnassus – I used to know, when the kids were little, that no single choice made the difference on my part. I am now trying to regain that confidence and comfort. I agree that trusting the kids, and almost more importantly, my own heart, is the only guide that’s going to work.

    Une femme – Thank you. Said in the most comforting and happy mom voice I can muster:).

    hostess – As long as they put you in a place you want to be, in the end. It’s a push and pull, the opinions of one’s kids, and one’s own sense of self worth. Or so it seems to me.

    Marsha – Thank you. Yes! Thank goodness for the aunts and mothers and grandmothers. Also sisters!

  • 08/24/11
    11:03 am

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    Lisa said...

    RoseAG – Well. Yes. That is absolutely true. It was I, battling, in secret, and not very well. We’re moving on.

    Staircase Witch – Oh throw her a lifeline! Aunts are the best. As for the early development, they now suspect shampoos etc. and all the estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Boo.

    Toad – I am so glad.

    Mildred – Thank you. But I have to tell you I can’t write fiction to save my life. I think the imaginative process required to create real people would take me right off the cliff of craziness.

    Buckeroomama – Thank you. And, in the end, we’re all going to fall short. That’s the thing. It’s how we fail and recover that matters as much as doing it right to begin with. I wish I’d believed that more strongly all along.

  • 08/24/11
    11:03 am

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    Lisa said...

    Javi – Hello. Thank you for saying hello to me. Those precocious stubborn sorts grow up to be the most fabulous young women. Our job is to avoid reflecting a self back to them that shames them for their drive and ambition. I am sorry you are feeling questionable in your marriage, and I hope you have the support you need to attend to it as best possible.

    mater – You are further down the path than I. I could imagine it transpiring as you suggest – but also since my kids and I had a rupture in the divorce, I can also imagine that they might want more infantilizing than they’ve had of late.

    Terri – Interesting. Again, you’re further down the path than I. Thank you for the counsel down the years.

    Marcela – Thank you. I can imagine that motherhood with twins is more than twice as immersive as with one baby. That surfacing requires a lot of focus. And I am heartened to hear that all this talking – that’s it, you are right – can lead us to the right place.

    Stephanie – Thank you. I think kids need to know, maybe especially for us mostly rational sorts, what we look like when we get pushed too far. Defining safety means understanding danger, if you will.

    Marge – Well, wow, thank you. And I am so glad that you worked it out in the end.

  • 08/24/11
    9:15 pm

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    Latha said...

    I love this post! Such poignant understated writing, but one that constricts my throat when I read and reread. My son is only nine, so we have ways to go before the teen years but as a sole parent, one of the things that I take extra care is to protect him from my emotional/mood swings, so I really get what you are saying.

    08/29/11
    8:27 am
    Lisa said...

    Thank you. You understood my point exactly.

  • 08/25/11
    11:42 pm

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    Lynda said...

    Phew. I believe I held my breath the entire time I was reading this post. Now I’m breathing in deeply, trying to absorb the words, wisdom and humility of this grace-filled offering.

    Having no children, I am blessed to be an aunt of several, and now great-aunt of many more, ranging in age from 23 to 4. My 16 year-old great-niece and I have an especially close relationship. In addition to bringing us both indescribable joy, it’s helped her through some tough times with her folks and taught me a few things about myself.

    After reading your post, Lisa, I think (and hope and pray) I may be able to be a more compassionate, supportive aunt to both generations of nieces. Many thanks.

    08/29/11
    8:28 am
    Lisa said...

    You are so kind. And I bet you are a great aunt and great-aunt, understanding the importance of that relationship as you do.

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