Mother can’t you see I’ve got to live my life the way I feel is right for me. Might not be right for you, but it’s right for me
-Sarah Mclachlan, Elsewhere
Mothering style. When I first encountered this term, I thought it was weird. What is a mothering style? I thought. You simply have a child and you mother it. For me, that just meant following my mother’s mothering style. It’s all I knew and it seemed great to me.
I grew up with a father who was an alcoholic. I don’t always like saying that out loud and less so in print. Just as I don’t want to be the poster child for autism, I also know that this was not all my father was, an alcoholic. He was a man of great passion and creativity; a poet, actor, and a lover of books. He also had a great interest in real estate and business. Now that I think of it, I am very much like him. Nevertheless, he had a drinking problem and it brought great unrest and instability to our home immensely affecting my sisters and I while we were growing up.
My mom, like my father, was born in Puerto Rico. She came to the U.S. when she was nineteen for what was supposed to be a summer vacation. My mom met my father, who arrived earlier, fell in love, and never went back. The story is quite dramatic, involving my grandfather hauling my mom back to Puerto Rico and then my father going after her, pleading for her hand in marriage. I am not sure how much of this is true but it is quite romantic and I love the fact that there was so much passion between them.
My mother was the total opposite of my father. Where my father liked to go out, network and socialize, my mom was a homebody. She enjoyed decorating, cooking, and beautifying the home any way she could. She sewed curtains, bed cushions, appliqued on towels, and eventually steered all of this creativity towards my sisters and I by making us amazing dresses. My mom had many friends but she did not go out with them, she solely entertained at home. She liked the privacy that New York, particularly the Bronx offered, where you lived behind locked doors, in apartment buildings, everyone in their own file cabinet of a box. She often complained about her home in Puerto Rico where there was no privacy with open door policies, and anyone walking in whenever they wanted, whether they were related or not.
In actuality, I am very grateful to my mom for this. My mom’s love of the home, provided a balance to the chaos that arose when my father would come home drunk, break dishes, curse at her and us, and leave in a huff, sometimes for days.
But like many parents born outside of the United States and raising their children in what they thought was a foreign land, my mom’s mothering style was infused with fear. My two sisters and myself were absolutely sheltered and not allowed to do much that did not involve being in front of the house where my mother could watch us. The freedom that we did have came from being part of a church community and being allowed to go on trips with the youth.
This was okay when we were little girls but as we got older, my sisters and I often struggled for a morsel of freedom. We would joke that my mother’s act of rebellion, coming to the United States at nineteen and then staying for a boy, was more dramatic than anything else we ever fought for: wanting the right to go to school in Manhattan, wanting to date at 16 (that battle we lost quickly), or spending a semester abroad.
When I had children, I naturally tried to emulate my mom’s example. It was the only mothering style I knew. With my first born, I had various freelance jobs so I still had a semblance of a working life but with Dan, and his challenges, this was not possible. I needed to be home. I thought it would be easy because I saw my mom do it and she was so happy. But it wasn’t at all for me. I like to go out, I like to socialize, people energize me! This had not changed because I had children. My husband had (still does) a hectic job and was often not available to watch the children so that I could plan time with friends, and it was difficult to find a babysitter who understood Dan’s needs. I was lonely, miserable, and sad. I would question myself and always had mother guilt because I had this need to go hang out with friends. Why couldn’t I be content like my mom? My mom sacrificed so much for us and I was falling short. What was wrong with me? Should I have ever had kids?
I finally had to come to terms with the fact that my mom’s mothering style was not my own. Yes, my mom is an amazing woman, and she continues to be my role model in many respects. She is a great example to me of courage and resilience. She came to the Bronx at 19 years old, by herself, to live with a family friend from her hometown. This was indeed a great act of rebellion and liberation that allowed her to live the life she desired, here in the States. I don’t know if I could have done that. She put up with my father’s alcoholism, finally breaking free by leaving him. We had to live with family and friends for a while but we finally settled down and began to heal. My mom’s fierceness is what I tapped into when I finally made the decision to honor who I was as a mother. I recognized that, although we had different stories, we possessed the same tenacity and persistence.
That doesn’t mean that there are no sacrifices to be made when you become a mother. These sacrifices, however, are different for each of us. I didn’t have to sacrifice my gregarious self because I have two special needs kids. Now the work began as to how I could honor the social person I was while still being fully present for my children. It’s more complicated when you have special needs children but complicated is not impossible. I finally applied for respite services and got help. I also joined a support group that allowed me access to an array of special needs parents; fearless, warrior moms and dads who also held me accountable in this self care journey.
What is your mothering style? How can you begin to tap into what makes you you, regardless of having kids or not. How can you find a mothering style that honors who you are as a person? How can you honor yourself by creating a mothering style that serves you?