Several months ago, after a long, sweet stint as a champion sleeper, my then 10-month-old son, Daniel, began sitting bolt upright at the unlovely hour of 4:30 a.m. and wailing until I went to him. Hanging over his crib rail one night, shivering in my thin white nightgown, I had a flashback. I was 4 or 5, and I woke up either sick, afraid, or just lonely and called out for my mother. From where I lay, I could see straight down the hallway, see her stumbling toward my room, her pale nightgown backlit by the dim light from the stairs. In my memory, she's an angel come to rock me back to sleep.
But now I'm on the other side. I know exactly how it feels to be the woman in the nightgown: the instant transition from deep sleep to action. The sensation that there's actual sand in your eyes, actual lead weighing down your bones. Then the amazingly soft feel of your child's silky hair, his warm heavy breath, the way your hand takes up almost the whole of his back. It hurts, because it's so late and you're so tired, and then it hurts again, because your heart just breaks with love.
Finally, I can sit across the table from my mother and nod knowingly. It doesn't matter that I became a mom in my 30s, after college and a career, whereas my mom had her first child just a couple of years out of high school. We may have taken different paths, but we wound up at the same place, that 4:30 a.m. one. When I had a baby, I got it -- the visceral pull of motherhood -- and I realized that this is how my mother felt about me.
How that stunning, simple realization can change your relationship with your mother, however, depends on what it was like before you had a child. Giving birth may draw you closer -- or cast new light on old, sometimes thorny, issues.
Denise Schipani is a writer specializing in health, fitness, and parenting.
Before the baby, anything your mom may have said about motherhood was just words. But once you're in her shoes (the ones with spitup all over them), those words take on new meaning, and you hang on to every one. "When I left California to move to Boston eight years ago, I didn't mind the distance from my mother," says Penny Zuk, mom of a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son in Monrovia, California. "Phone calls and occasional visits were enough. Until I had Marjory. Suddenly, I was surprised by how much I missed her. I wanted her to see the baby grow and change." That's part of the reason Zuk and her family moved back to California a few years ago. "Having children opened up new connections for us," she says. "I used to withhold information that might worry her, like when our oil heater broke in the middle of a bad New England winter, but after Marjory was born, I picked up the phone constantly and volunteered all sorts of details about my life. It feels good to include her, and I love to hear how she handled my siblings and me when we were kids."
What Zuk discovered was a common denominator with her mom where one might not have existed before, says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation. Even a woman who has a tight relationship with her mom before becoming one herself may struggle to bridge the gap of years and experience that stretches between them. Then a baby comes and -- boom! -- the bridge gets crossed, and recrossed, as you begin to feel what your mom felt, see what she saw.
What if your pre-baby relationship with your mother was less than ideal? A new child often presents an opportunity for healing. It did for Elizabeth Lyons, mom of a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins in Plainfield, Illinois. "My mom and I used to go at each other in screaming matches. She always seemed to disapprove of me, whether it was during my teen years or over my career ambitions later on."
But after her daughter was born, Lyons felt drawn to her mom -- in part because she began to appreciate the challenges of mothering and also because she and her mother now had something to focus on besides their own strained relationship. "It wasn't until I felt the awesome responsibility of parenting, knowing I was guiding this little life," says Lyons, "that I realized that my mom, like me, was only trying to do the best she could based on her experiences."
Of course, not every fractured mother-daughter bond is repaired when a baby is born. A very critical or controlling mother may become more so. It's not fair to expect the child's presence to work magic. But you shouldn't shut the door on your mom, since that would deprive your little one of his grandmother. It's a tricky line. "You have to separate bad feelings about your mom, which may be perfectly legitimate, from who you are now -- the mother of a child," says Linda Mintle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of A Daughter's Journey Home: Finding a Way to Love, Honor and Connect With Your Mother. It's no longer only about you, or your mom, but about what's best for the baby.
It's a paradox. The woman whose advice you spent years shrugging off is now the one you turn to for help. Sure, some of your mom's suggestions may be outdated -- such as putting your 11-month-old in stiff shoes (no longer recommended for little feet) -- but most of childcare is instinctive, and universal. When Cresta Kruger of New York City had her baby three months ago, she learned a lot just by watching her own mom interact with Ayla. "From the way she cradled her head while bathing her to how she burped her -- laying her tummy down across her legs to put pressure on the stomach -- my mom's actions gave me something to mirror during that first uncertain week," she says.
You may find that any wisdom your mom offers can help, whether you follow it to the letter, modify it, or use it as confirmation that your own instincts are right-on. For me, hearing the tale of how my siblings and I were plagued with constipation after being fed cereal at 2 months -- on the advice of our pediatrician -- only confirmed my decision to hold off until Daniel was a few months older.
Of course, your mother is far more than a source of feeding tips or diaper tricks. She's also a repository of history, which always has lessons to teach. Beyond just amusing "in my day" anecdotes, your mom's stories of childbirth and parenting can let you know that you're not alone. In my son's early, colicky weeks, I confessed to my mother that I had an urge to pop him out on the fire escape and forget I'd ever had him. Instead of being horrified, she shared that she'd once punched her bureau in frustration when my sister was an infant.
But what you can learn about mothering from Mom isn't limited to what her words can tell you. Right up until the moment you have a child, you've been gathering and storing information about mothering, modeled on what your mom did, or didn't, do. A woman can no more deny her mother's influence on her own parenting than she can refute getting her curly hair or short temper from her.
I make Daniel grilled cheese sandwiches the way my mom did -- flattening them as they cook with a heavy can -- and every time I fix one, I smile. On the other hand, when I order in pizza for dinner or dash out the door for work, leaving piles of ironing behind, it's obvious that I've departed from her stay-at-home example.
Sometimes, doing it the way your mom did is impossible. Whenever I feel I'm not giving Daniel enough time, I comfort myself knowing that he sees two parents who work and spend equal amounts of time with him, a partnership that my parents' more traditional marriage, though loving, didn't exemplify.
And, of course, there are times you don't want to follow Mom's example, times you look back at certain aspects of your childhood as a cautionary tale. Lyons, for instance, remembers being punished without ever having an opportunity to explain herself first. "I often wished my mom had sat me down and asked me 'Why did you do what you did?' Now when my kids misbehave, I listen to their side of the story first. I still discipline them, but I think this is a better way."
Grandmother Knows Best?
Whether your mom is, shall we say, free with her opinions or one who's quieter on the how-tos and what-fors, there's something about the arrival of a baby that awakens the know-it-all in nearly every grandma. It can be tough if you and your mother clash over the "right" way to care for your child. "I call it the put-a-hat-on-that-baby syndrome," says Mintle. "When my daughter was an infant, my mom would insist she wear a hat when we went out. It didn't matter if I thought it wasn't cold enough for one."
It helps to remember that many parenting dictates you take for granted may not have existed when Mom was on your side of the crib. "My mother thinks that my four-month-old daughter should sleep on her tummy," says Andrea Todd, who lives in Sacramento, California. "I had to explain to her that every expert now recommends back sleeping for safety. Though she's still slightly skeptical, she respects my choice."
Pick and choose the issues worth arguing over. Your baby needs to sleep on her back, and Mom will have to accept that and follow this rule when she's babysitting. But it won't hurt your daughter to wear a hat on only mildly chilly days when you're with your mom. Try to live with it.
Sometimes Mom may poke her nose into areas of your life that run far deeper than do-we-or-don't-we babycare issues. "My mother didn't think it was right for me to put Rose into daycare when I went back to work," says Todd. "It was hard for me not to get angry at her, but I believe there was something more going on. I think she felt it wasn't quite fair that I got to have my job and Rose." Her mom's parents didn't think college was a priority, and after she started a family, it seemed like an impossibility. Think of it this way: If the choices we have as modern moms (such as whether to pursue professional ambitions or let our children watch the hundreds of TV channels that didn't exist when we were kids) feel bewildering to us, imagine how they must look to our mothers. If your mom questions your lifestyle, Mintle suggests asking what her concerns are and explaining to her that you've considered every angle when making your decision.
On the other hand, moms who feel they made some mistakes with their kids are often determined to try again with their grandchildren. It can be frustrating, to say the least, for you to watch your mother -- who may have been too busy running her home to sit and play with you -- joyfully stacking blocks with your toddler. But if you call her on it, who wins? Not your child, who reaps huge benefits from spending time with Grandma. You have to let it go.
Seeing the Big Picture
As any mom knows, when you have a child, perfection goes straight out the window -- not just in terms of your home or your hair but in how you parent. Once you accept that, you're freed of any fantasy you may have entertained that your mother should have been flawless while she raised you.
So there the two of you are, mother and daughter: a pair of far-from-ideal women just trying to care for your child in the best way you know how.
Speaking of which, it's been four months since my son's sleep problems began and I let him, on the advice of my mother, "cry it out." It worked. These days, he's back to peaceful zzz's, and if he does wail, I venture into his room only if his cries last more than five or ten minutes. Most of the time, he finds his own comfort.
And most of the time, my mother -- despite that one, shimmering memory of her heading down the hallway toward my room -- didn't come to rock me to sleep when I called for her. More often, I'd hear her groggy voice from the master bedroom, saying, "Go back to sleep." If this fact made me feel a little sad before I became a mom, now I understand it. She knew it then, and I know it now: You can't always be there. My mother was no angel. And neither will I be.