Book Excerpt from It Takes a Mother to Raise a Village: “Mommy Knows Best”
by Colleen Down

Mommy Knows Best
I recently saw a T-shirt that said “My mother is a travel agent-she specializes in guilt trips.” Well don’t we all? The reason we would make such good agents is because we have been on so many of those trips ourselves.

From the time I wake up in the morning until my head hits my pillow at night there are dozens of reasons and people to make me feel guilty. I jump out of bed in the morning feeling guilty because Martha Stewart would not want me to leave the bed, the focal point of the room, unmade. I quickly brush my teeth and run out the door to get my child to school. We missed the bus, again. I feel guilty because he yelled “SHOTGUN” and wants to make the five-minute ride to school in the front seat where the air bag is detonated to go off at any moment. I feel guilty because he will have to check in with the office lady and tell her why he is late again.

Then, I run home and hop in the shower where I lather up with my Suave shampoo instead of the Paul Mitchell and feel guilty because my hairdresser said it is going to make my hair fall out. I grab a left over chocolate chip cookie and a banana for breakfast and feel guilty for not thinking of my heart and eating a green leafy vegetable with a side of oatmeal for breakfast. I throw a load of laundry in the dryer including the sweater that yells at me “Line Dry Only.” I quickly write some bills and feel guilty for using the return labels from the Cancer Society because I never sent them a donation in return. I flip on the television to watch The View while an expert on exercise reminds me that I should not be sitting down, folding my laundry, I need to enroll in a kick boxing class. This show is interspersed with commercials. I’m reminded that the washcloth in the kitchen sink is a prime carrier of the bubonic plague and if I don’t start buying antibacterial soap we are all going to die. Followed by another commercial asking me if I have taken my calcium supplement today while an old lady in a rocking chair looks off into the sunset (or was that the Viagra commercial? I can’t remember). On returning to the program, the experts remind me I am overdue to get a Pap Smear, a Mammogram and an oil change. It is only lunch and I am feeling totally inadequate in all I do.

The afternoon brings notes from the teachers reminding me that my child is not getting his spelling words written and his lunch account is about to go in the hole; phone calls from neighbors asking if I know that my child just rode down the street without her bicycle helmet; and a call from a computer telling me I have three library books overdue. I get dinner on and realize that one of the basic four, or the bottom of the pyramid, or whatever it is that we measure dinner by now, is missing. Besides, even if I did put that bowl of brussel sprouts on the table, who is going to eat it? I do my best helping get homework done while wondering why I never kept up on my algebraic equations. I send my children off to bed feeling guilty for not spending a little one on one time reading to each of them. Finally, I crawl into bed and begin to drift off to sleep when I remember that the experts say my electric blanket is radioactive. Oh well, if my hair falls out I won’t have to worry about using that cheap shampoo anymore.

We live in a world of experts. There is someone out there who seems to know everything there is to know about nearly every aspect of our lives. The airwaves abound with experts and Madison Avenue has mastered the art of harnessing the power of “the expert” to feed our guilt and make us pull out our wallets. Perhaps in no area are we more prone to trust in the experts than in that of child care. We live in a world of child care experts. But as Bill Cosby is always quick to remind us, these child-care experts are usually people without children.

The bookstore shelves are filled with child development books and the news channels all seem to have a resident spokesman. Psychologists speak out on everything from potty training to prom night. The problem with being surrounded by so many experts in life is we forget that we are “the expert” on our child. We are our child’s number one advocate, we are the authority on our own children and we cannot turn this responsibility over to anyone else.

Once I had a problem I was dealing with so I wrote a letter and then proceeded to print five additional carbon copies for others who I thought might be able to help with the problem. My husband reminded me that it would be best not to send the carbon copies because each person that received the letter would automatically assume that someone else would deal with the problem and in the end nothing would be solved. When dealing with a problem it is usually best to lay it in one person’s lap and have them be accountable. In the same way, I don’t think that God put a “cc” at the bottom of our calling to motherhood. Our children are dropped squarely into our laps and we are the ones who will be held responsible for their love and rearing. While the school, the church, and the parks and recreation department can make our jobs easier, their job is certainly not to raise our children.

A mother is unique in the fact that she is the one person in the world who knows her own child. Like navy radar we have the ability to recognize our own child’s cry on a playground full of children. We can distinguish a tired cry, from a hungry cry, from an “I am just throwing a tantrum” cry. We know which blanket they need when they are not feeling well and which color bowl they like to eat their ice cream in. As they begin to grow and go out into the world, a mother knows when a child is truly sick and when they want to stay home because they didn’t finish their math homework. You know what they will not eat and what kind of candy bar to buy if you want to surprise them. As a mother of teenagers my radar has become so sensitive that I can usually tell which friend is dropping them off by the sound of the car engine. Over the years you learn their talents, their strengths and their personalities. Many of these things you know because you have many of the same character traits yourself. We have all had the experience of sounding just like our own mothers and also the experience of having our own children mimic our peculiarities.

With this great knowledge of our own children we must have the confidence to trust our instincts and not be so easily swayed by the advice of “the experts.” We have had many experiences with the school system, over the years, as we have tried to find the proper placement for my son, Andy. On one occasion an educational team was evaluating him. As I sat around a large conference table with about twelve other people including psychologists, therapists, teachers, and the principal, I was totally intimidated until I saw the humor of the whole situation. Here were a number of people who had spent no more than 30 minutes each with my son evaluating his behavior and handing me reams of paper with their various reports. Of course, they contained no practical information, like why he insisted on flushing Barbie dolls down the toilet. I never saw any of these people again. I would not recognize them if I stood behind them at the grocery store, but for a small moment they had me convinced they knew what was best. With a few more years behind me, I know now that we need to listen and learn from those who work with our children. Then we use their knowledge and combine it with all we know of our children’s unique personalities to make those decisions, which are in the very best interest of the child.

Mothers are among the very few people in our children’s lives who are there for the long haul. We are a constant in a world of transients. Babysitters come and go. Teachers generally only spend one year with our children, although they can leave a lasting influence. Scout leaders, coaches, dance teachers and neighbors all impact our children’s lives, usually in very positive ways, but then they move on. I have often wondered what happened to my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Alberry. She was so beautiful, so soft spoken and she made me feel good about myself. She truly impacted my life but I never saw her again after that year. On the other hand, in five minutes I can get my mother on the phone. She still knows if I am crying because I need a nap or because I am throwing a little tantrum. Children, old and young, need to feel there are constants in our rapidly changing world.

I fear that too many parents today buy into the idea that our children are better raised and better taught by “the experts” who have studied children. We have bought into the idea that a bright, well-equipped classroom, with modern technology, is a better learning environment than under Mom’s feet in the kitchen. There are exceptions and there are many children whose home situation is anything but desirable. Unfortunately, we tend to look at the exceptions and then make them the rule. Most children come into homes where they are wanted, cared for, and loved. These children need Mom to be the most important person in their life and mothers need to realize that they are. Even where society tends to define what is a good home, we can remember the story of Mother Teresa who learned that a box can constitute a good home. Isn’t it interesting that the battle cry for children everywhere is “I WANT MY MOMMY.”

We get up each morning and turn on the television to the morning news and in between the weather and stock market reports we start our day with the parade of professionals. Professionals with at least 3 letters behind their name and wearing designer suits, laying the battle plans for how to raise our children. Meanwhile we are in the trenches, in our housecoats feeling totally inadequate about ourselves. We are surrounded with media images telling us there is so much more to life and we are not really needed at home anyway. Besides, aren’t there other people out there who could do just as good a job raising our kids? It is time to set aside our inadequacies and assume our roles as the most important person in our children’s life. Mothers are needed, and needed desperately. Not just to bear the children but to raise them. Then as we become grandmothers we are needed to link each generation to the next. We have that God given intuition and knowledge to do the job and to do it well. History and our hearts tell us this is so.

Parents magazine on the occasion of their 75th anniversary published several articles from previous years to illustrate how much parenting had changed over the years and also how much it had stayed the same. One article dealt with the influence of the media and the negative effect it had on children. It was written in 1933 and was entitled “Better Radio Programs for Children.” Many of the articles were concerned with health issues. While our grandmothers dealt with such deadly diseases as polio and whooping cough, we worry today about drugs and AIDS. Even violence was an issue in the 1920’s in an era when gangsters and war were glamorized.

Perhaps in no area have things changed more than that of childbirth. An article published in the 1930’s recommended that women spend at least three weeks in the hospital after giving birth and then avoid any kind of work for at least six more weeks. I have never had the luxury of more than 24 hours myself. My goodness, by the time those women were getting out of the hospital I could have conceived again. I guess while our grandmothers were able to recover after childbirth women today at least have the options of pain relief before giving birth. My husband often laments the fact that he was not a father in the era of the men’s waiting room. He would have much preferred reading Field and Stream and passing out cigars to wiping my brow and feeding me ice chips.

Even in my own childbirth career I have seen the changes. When my first was born in the 80’s I was living in Northern California and like the Bohemian women, which surrounded me, everything was au natural. While my neighbors were having their babies in hot tubs, Steve and I faithfully took our pillow each week to our La Maze class. For two hours each week we learned to visualize ourselves on the beach and breath deeply. (It wasn’t until sixteen years later that those breathing exercises actually came in handy when I was teaching that baby to drive). I kept my baby in my room and knew that if anyone were to offer her a bottle our mother/child bond would be broken for life. A decade later I was still having babies and my neighbors and myself had moved to the medicated mode. The anesthesiologist replaced my La Maze instructor as my best friend. I also let the nurses give my baby a little sugar water so that I could get a few hours sleep before I went home to bond.

The changes in my journey through the baby bearing years can probably best be seen in the diaper hall of fame. I started by using cloth diapers that had to be rinsed in the toilet. I then progressed to the first Pampers that still had to be fastened with diaper pins. They also did not have elastic in the legs making each baby a veritable time bomb waiting to explode. I now use the ultra modern, clothlike, velcro-fastened diapers of today with the alphabet printed on them so I can teach my baby to read while I change him.

With each new child that I bring into our home, I browse through the Toys ‘R Us catalogue and feel like I need to buy all new equipment. Every few years everything improves from high chairs and strollers to walkers (that don’t walk) and thermometers. Unfortunately this is not true with all child-rearing philosophies.

The challenge facing parents is to know which ideas are passing fads and which are timeless principles to which every generation must adhere in order to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. The most disturbing article I read in this anniversary magazine appeared in the 1920’s. This was the era of Sigmund Freud and behaviorist John Watson. John Watson published a book Psychological Care of Infant and Child. He preached a military approach to raising children warning mothers to never hug and kiss their children or let them sit on their lap. Freud thought it was a very unwise decree of nature that children had to have mothers! He said, “there is something sinful, dark and disastrous in the affection of children for their parents.” Mothers were cautioned to avoid loving their children too much.

After reading this article, I finally understood why my grandmother kept telling me that I would spoil my newborn daughter if I held her too much. This was the advice that she had heard from the “experts” as a young mother. To my generation this advice, once printed in a respected parenting magazine, seems like total nonsense. I wonder what advice I am following that my children will laugh at someday. Worse yet, what advice am I following, thinking I am doing what is best for my children, that they will need a therapist to help them recover from?

Perhaps it was hearing such ridiculous advice from the “experts” that prompted Aldous Huxley to sit at his typewriter in the 1930’s and write the book Brave New World. I believe that if Mr. Huxley were still alive today he would be shocked to find out how truly prophetic this work of fiction has become. In this story babies are conceived in test tubes and the term Mother is used only as derogatory slang. The children are then raised in nurseries where they receive the “best” of care. Perhaps not unlike the new “Crme de le Crme” daycare centers of today where for a mere $14,000 a year children can truly have the best of everything, everything except the expendable “mother.” Mr. Huxley then goes on to introduce us to a world where promiscuity is totally acceptable and even encouraged because this is the only way to drive all passion from the population. It is a world where the slightest bit of emotional discomfort is relieved by simply popping a Soma, a drug that deadens all pain and joy. This brave new world runs like clockwork until John, an Indian from a primitive tribe, returns and introduces once again everything that is human; love, joy, pain, and passion. I only wish that Mr. Huxley had lived long enough to write another novel in response to some of Hillary’s ideas.

However, there are true principles that never change no matter what the latest magazines say. Principles of love, discipline, humor and respect are timeless. We are generally safe when we follow our hearts. All around us hearts are failing. Heart disease is not only the number one killer of our physical bodies, but it can kill us spiritually and emotionally as well. We intellectualize ourselves to death. We spend so much time talking, (late night talk shows, morning talk shows, celebrity talk shows, talk radio, talking points) that we have lost the ability to listen. All of us deep down inside usually know what we should be doing but it requires us to go deep inside and listen to our own hearts. It requires our minds to pull over to the side of the road occasionally so that our hearts can tell us which way to go. This is very difficult considering that from the time we are little we are told to “stop and think,” “put on our thinking caps,” and “think it through.”

I am not saying that we leave our brains by the side of the road; only that we allow our hearts to lead us and let our minds follow along. You definitely don’t want it following too far behind though because it is our brains that work out all the details along the way. We need our hearts to help us make the right decisions in life. This is especially true when it comes to motherhood. Mothers have a sixth sense that tells them when something is not right. How many stories have you heard of someone putting down the phone to run and check on a child just as they were running into danger? As a mother you carried that child under your heart or in your heart for many months before you ever held it in your arms. Your heart will always be there to hang over them and protect them. Our problem is that we allow our hearts to become so clogged with all of the insignificant and pressing matters of life that hardening of the arteries occurs.

I vividly remember the day I graduated from college. I was six months pregnant with my second child. I had lived and dreamed of that day all of my life. It was a tangible, defined goal and I had reached it. That night, as I sat around the table celebrating, my dad began to ask me about my plans for the future. What kind of career would I have? Had I sent off any job applications? For heaven sake, what was I going to do with that very expensive diploma I now held tightly in my hand? He was shocked when I said, “I am going to stay home.”

“Colleen, put on your thinking cap. Think this through. Your husband still hasn’t finished school and soon you will have another mouth to feed,” he said. I couldn’t find the words to adequately explain the feelings of my heart. The heart has never been very good at logical reasoning. All I knew was that I already had one beautiful little girl who had totally changed my life, and soon I would have a new baby who would need to be loved and nurtured the same way. My heart had already decided that my new career was to be at home and my mind would just have to work out the details later. Were things tight? Of course they were, (remember I used cloth diapers on my first three children.) There were dings on our credit report (the heart is not much of an accountant), we shared one car, and I have had a chronic case of cabin fever since I left school. But, do I have any regrets? No, not one. Funny thing about following your heart, you usually always know that you made the right choice.

Following your heart takes courage. We live in a left-brained world and if you are seeking praise, the honors of men, a hefty paycheck, or the approval of your relatives, it is best to just do what your brain says. The brain has always worshiped at the altar of safety and security. While the heart let’s just say the heart tends to live more on the wild side.

Did the founders of our country seek for safety and security as they crossed uncertain seas and untamed wildernesses to find freedom? Is the only reason we have children to provide us with security when we grow old? Of course not; it is because we were following our hearts. The term “safe sex” is an oxymoron. Sex is commitment, love, passion, all of the words which define the heart. It is interesting that the word heart comes from the Latin word cor. Hence we have such words as core: at the center of something, coronary: having to do with the heart, and cordial: coming from the heart. The word courage also has the same Latin root, cor. My dictionary defines heart as the seat of affections, passions, courage and spirit; that which is nearest the center; the very essence of something; the conscience or moral side of our natures. Perhaps the great Oz was mixed up. If the cowardly lion really wanted courage, maybe he should have been given a heart, like the tin man.

Mark Twain said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but doing something in the face of fear.” History is full of stories about courageous women who followed their hearts and changed the world as a result. Florence Nightingale went against the wishes of her family and the customs of her society when she followed her heart to become a nurse during the Crimean war. By doing so she changed the face of nursing forever. Harriet Tubman followed her heart to freedom and then brought freedom to thousands of other slaves. A generation ago mothers began to follow their hearts and courageously defied the medical profession when they bundled up their newborn, mentally retarded babies and took them home to raise instead of tucking them quietly away in institutions. Because of their courage and love my son has the opportunity to ride the school bus each day to the local high school with the other kids in the neighborhood.

The time has come for us to unpack our bags and change our destinations. The time of the guilt trip has passed. Instead, the courageous women of today must be more like Joan of Arc and put on our armor. We must wear a breastplate and protect our hearts. We must put on a helmet and protect our minds. Then we must willingly wield the sword of truth in behalf of our children and our villages. We must trust our own instincts and intuitions as we fight the battles that lie ahead. At the end of the day we must feel less guilt and more confidence and passion. And occasionally we need to put a waffle with a scoop of ice cream in front of our children for dinner and smile and say, “Mommy knows best”.

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2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.