When my daughters were little, I swore I’d be the cool mom who spoke openly about sexuality, the one who kept a basket of condoms in the bathroom for my future teenagers. But motherhood has a way of changing your inclination toward cool-mom status.
Being a good mother is a moving target, a constant cha-cha of adaptation, even long after your child becomes an adult.
My four girls are now strong young women, ages 28, 29, 31, and 32. My oldest, Taeko (her Japanese name means “wonderful child”), was the gleeful leader of the almost-litter. As a preschooler, she relished her role as the One Who Knows. We’d had dozens of mother-daughter chats over my bulging belly or leaking breasts about how babies were made. I responded to her questions with age-appropriate answers, which she promptly repeated to her younger sisters.
She stood taller when she had the chance to teach.
My New Mantra
In a flash, she was 15. She had a boyfriend.
I’ve been 15. I’ve had a boyfriend.
I know it sounds negligent, but I decided to avoid the birth control discussion completely. Call it a hunch, a shiver of intuition. Something told me she needed to do her own sleuthing.
The stakes were high. I myself was the put-up-for-adoption infant of a young woman who’d had an affair with a married man and got pregnant despite his claims that he had a “war injury” ensuring his sterility. (Years later, we learned that, in true cad form, he had impregnated his secretary mere months before I was conceived.)
I agonized. For weeks, months even, I reminded myself to breathe. My new mantra was, “Let her learn.” I chanted it while reading about teenage pregnancy rates. I whispered it while emptying the bathroom trash can full of period debris.
Another fact gave me faith: Taeko was sneaky. I was counting on her to sneak right on over to Planned Parenthood. Fortunately, like millions of young women across the country, she did just that.
But she didn’t just get pills. Taeko talked herself into a job, and started doing the condom demonstrations for the young women who showed up at PP. Her interest in reproductive issues continued as she took community college courses during high school. Her favorite professor became her mentor, nudging her toward activism.
After graduating from university, Taeko headed to New York, snagging a job in a health clinic in Harlem and taking classes toward her master’s in public health. She went to public schools and prisons to talk about AIDS awareness. While working on her thesis, she volunteered for a needle exchange program, handing out free condoms and clean needles on dark street corners in New York.
I shuddered to think of Taeko in a room full of male inmates until she explained that she was the only one providing these men with AIDS information. I recoiled when imagining her standing under a bridge, surrounded by homeless people, but was touched by her compassion. With each cheerful update, I reminded myself to breathe.
She became the executive director of the needle exchange nonprofit, and completed her doctorate in public health. After co-producing a documentary on the opioid crisis, she moved to California, where she continues her advocacy work at the Harm Reduction Coalition.
Now, I’m not taking credit for any of that, believe me. It was all Taeko. I’m just enormously grateful that I got out of her way—and that her passion led her in a positive direction. (Whew.)
What works for one child might be disastrous for another. We still laugh about our second daughter, Tara, slamming her hand on the table and howling, “Can’t we have one dinner without Taeko talking about condoms?” If Tara had been my firstborn, we might have gone on a fast walk, chests heaving, arms pumping, as we talked about birth control. I’ll never know, because I never had to talk to any of them. Taeko, as they all assured me, was on it.
My nerve-jangling foray into differentiated mothering opened my eyes. I let go of the fear and ego that saturates most parenting decisions. I learned to trust my instincts—and my daughters.
Rather than stewing in the worst-case scenario, I latched onto the best-case scenario. It changed everything.
It wasn’t easy, however. I had sleepless nights worrying about my daughters on their year-long sojourns abroad or in their big-city lives. It took all my strength to step back as they faced their twenty-something challenges.
But letting them learn from each other was far more powerful than offering my advice. After all, I had never launched a career in New York, or moved to Dubai to teach. I had never gone toe to toe with tech bros in San Francisco, or followed my heart to find love in Buenos Aires. So I watched, touched by their loving support for one another, leaning back to allow them space.
Room to Breathe
Listen, I’m certainly not suggesting that mothers skip the birth control discussion. What I do recommend is offering each child a calibrated perspective and mothering based on who they are.
As a mother, you will both beat yourself up and celebrate your greatness—often on the same day. Years later, your child will praise your efforts, but point out blunders that you seriously cannot remember.
And it’s OK. Our foibles are fodder for deeper conversations about what it means to be a mother. If we’re lucky, our mom fails become our best comic material. They serve as billboards announcing that being a bold (if flawed) mother is the height of bad-assery.
As my daughters consider becoming mothers, I assure them that they don’t need to know everything; they just have to trust their instincts. They will be the ones who know their children best. I will offer wisdom whenever they ask for it, but wave that flag of mother’s intuition every chance I get.
Most of all, I will remind them to breathe.