Losing my mom as a teenager changed the way I raised my kids
I don’t remember much about my high school graduation, but I do remember that my mother wasn’t there.
I wore an ankle-length dress of creamy linen, embroidered with red poppies on the puckered bodice. It was a rare thing for me, wearing a dress purchased from a store, rather than one my mom had made. As a teenager, I didn’t appreciate my “couture” clothing, stitched on Mom’s well-worn Singer sewing machine, but I did love that dress.
My mom wasn’t there because she was home dying from breast cancer. She was sick throughout my high school years, although no one in our family ever mentioned the “C” word. When I tell this story, people find it hard to believe, but my mother gave birth to five babies over 10 years and never used the word “pregnant.” It just wasn’t lady-like.
Mom was Canadian, raised in Edmonton, Alberta, born into a family where you didn’t take yourself too seriously. And you certainly didn’t complain, even when it was 30 degrees below zero and you were wearing silk stockings.
She was beautiful and glamorous, creative, fun-loving, always the life of the party — and her parties were the best. She and my dad would roll up the living room rug, and invite friends over for an evening of dancing and homemade Jambalaya (she adapted quickly to fresh Californian fish, fruits, and vegetables).
Mom would ask the milkman in for a cup of coffee when he delivered fresh cream to serve with warm peaches, picked ripe off the tree in our backyard. Dad complained that it was supposed to be a “flowering peach,” but the tree never got the memo, producing hundreds of delicious, messy peaches every summer.
She loved people, and people loved her. When Dad built our home in Palo Alto, Ross Road Elementary School was over our back fence. If a teacher needed a toaster, hopscotch chalk, or a kick-ball, she would just hand it over the fence. On my birthday, she invited the entire Kindergarten class — and teacher Mrs. Black, of course! — over for a party. We made sunflowers out of paper plates and the skinny green sticks you get at the nursery.
The memories come thick and fast when I write about her. Intellectually, I know that my mother has been gone 45 years, but that seems like an impossibly long time. It sounds cliche, but I still miss her every day, in some way. When I hear my daughter’s beautiful voice or my son’s big belly laugh, I feel her presence in my life. She loved singing (Camelot was her favorite soundtrack), cooking, making art, having coffee with friends, talking to babies…and she showed us kids that she loved being a mother.
I was only 18 when she died.
So when I read about ‘snowplow parenting’ and ‘helicopter parenting,’ I think to myself, Aren’t they lucky? To see your son graduate from high school, to watch your daughter go off to college, to be there for your children’s weddings and the births of their children. My greatest sorrow is that my mother never met my children, because she would have adored them.
When Mom died, I vowed that I would do everything in my power to be there for my own kids. And I have. I resent those who may criticize the extra efforts I made (and continue to make) on behalf of my now young-adult children. They are great kids, outgoing, confident and sure of themselves; this is my gift to them, given that I was a shy and insecure child, teen, and young adult.
So while I am not advocating for over-parenting — quite the opposite, in fact — I do want parents to appreciate the privilege of watching your kids grow up and into their own lives. To be present for milestones like graduations, weddings, and grandchildren.
Give your children the freedom to live their own lives, because you will not always be there. But they will remember you…if you have raised them well.