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Unanswered questions


Unanswered Question—Rochelle Ponders Her Success As A Mother

Unanswered Question — Rochelle Ponders Her Success As A Mother

In 2017, at the invitation of my neighbor, Gina Piazza, I joined a book group. The group was started in 2003 and is led by Betsy Kates, a smart, open-minded and gracious retired primary school teacher. Group membership fluctuates, with women joining, leaving and coming back, and there are about seventeen of us now, including several women who have been there from the beginning. By the end of 2021, the group had read one hundred novels, with one non-fiction exception that I know about, Michelle Obama’s Belonging.

At every meeting I’ve attended, I’ve heard people share their opinions and disagree with each other, and everyone is fine with it. I’ve learned from others’ insights and have come to rethink things in my own life. From what I can tell, many of us are or were working mothers, and many, additionally, now have the caretaking responsibility for our own mothers or mothers-in-law. 

In our process for coming up with the year’s reading list, we are very democratic. Each of us submits three titles. We pull ideas from The New York Times Recommended List, Good Reads and our friends. Then Betsy puts our complete list together, we vote and the top six win. One year, the reading list included Warlight, Dutch House and Where The Crawdads Sing, all novels in which mothers left their families or made not-so-easy choices. These three books were among our most popular reads of that year. Each reminded me that we will never know the whole story behind someone else’s decisions — or sometimes even our own decisions — but we can be sure that there is always more, always another side or a backstory to the story we tell. Subconsciously, Motherhood had become a primary topic of our reading group discussions, but we left one question unspoken: Were we good mothers? 

That question has been sitting in the back of my mind for a long time, until recently. I was afraid to have it move up front, afraid of the answer. My parenting education, like my life, has straddled two worlds, and it hasn’t been easy for me to reconcile them. My parents showed their love by making sure my sisters and I were protected. They wanted us to be safe. There was no manual for them to learn how to raise young American women in a world where we had choices and could build independent lives. As kids, if we were upset, my parents did everything they could to fix it” or protect us so that whatever happened would never happen again.

Not knowing I could at least think twice or perhaps choose a different approach to parenting, I was on autopilot and chose the same worrying, anxious, over-protective behavior as my parents. Sorry, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim and all the other child-rearing experts I consulted. I don’t know if I was the mother you told me I could be. My childhood experiences spoke louder to me than your words. My mother never baked cookies, on her own or with me and my sisters. She didn’t have to. Every day, there were hundreds of cookies in our family bakery. I followed in my mother’s footsteps. I never ever baked cookies in my life, never baked with Julia and Ben. Julia is an exceptional food professional, and none of it was thanks to me. What I passed along instead are many of the fears and superstitions I’d inherited. 

I lay awake at night and worry and wish that I had been a natural at mothering and less of a worrier, that my mother and father had lived long enough to meet my babies and that I had not been a workaholic. And I hope that whatever I have given my children in the negative column, including my poor eating habits, they have transcended. 

My children are accomplished and wise people. I love and am so proud of them. They are good citizens, wanting the best for people, including their mother and father, and they are very good at pointing out what is true and right. Now that they are grown, I have learned and gained a new perspective. When they talk, I listen and hear. I offer insights when asked, but not to justify my thoughts or opinions, not to fix anything. I am straddling again, being there for them while respecting the decisions they make for themselves and with their families. They want me to love them, not to over-protect them. They want me to let them love me too. I’m learning that is what it means to be a mother to adult children.