How Not to Mother Like Your Mother (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

From about the age of six through adolescence, I kept a mental list of things I would do differently when I became a mother. A few examples include:

  • Do not drag your child around to doctor appointments with you, especially when they involve pain or bad news.
  • Do not scream forbidding threats regarding drugs, sex and alcohol as a means to deter normal teen experimentation.
  • Lastly, do not be so overbearing when your child becomes an adult that your child buys a one-way ticket to Europe and doesn’t come back for two years.

At the very least, my mother taught me what not to do — mainly because of her outright faulty parenting approach. I’m not even sure she had an “approach.” Perhaps it was just a reckless attempt at reigning-in the unwieldy nature of a maturing child who you are expected to nurture and protect. When that child no longer needs protection from falling off swings or skinning her knees, what do you do with that instinct?

My mother bundled it all into being hysterical, irrational and overbearing. She did this without any consideration to what might be normal expectations of a teen. I can safely say that my mother did not read the manual that might describe the typical teenage imperative to distinguish oneself from one’s parents. In doing so, a teenager needs freedom to detach without criticism, tolerance toward rebellion and encouragement to explore. As such, I went through my teen years feeling both alienated and squelched. I could not have felt more distant from my own mother, and there were times when I needed a parent to confide in and guide me.

So, when I became a mom I was determined to do it differently. When my girls were younger they were compliant and easy-going; they could be molded by me — a mom that they adored and respected. I was yet to become a target of eye-rolling and withering sighs. I rested leisurely on those laurels believing I had this whole “mothering thing” sewn up. My girls were smart, gregarious and confident, and they wanted to spend time with me doing the things we enjoyed — like it was supposed to be. As the older child edged into her teen years we discovered skateboarding together. This was the direct opposite to anything my own mother would have been interested in or capable of (the image alone sends shivers through me). We were the post-modern poster-family of fun.

For the beginning phase of teenhood I felt smug and cocky. My 13-year-old and I would go for long, late-summer cruises on our skateboards deep into Liberty State Park. We’d stop and talk about everything, including her feelings about things that really mattered to her. Occasionally, I’d have a self-conscious moment where I thought, “This is really cool. My daughter and I are having fun and connecting. I don’t know what everyone else was complaining about.” When people heard I had a teen daughter they’d give the predictable, “Oh…poor you” condolence. I would come right back at them with, “No, it’s actually really fun! I’m enjoying it.”

These days, with one daughter in the throes of adolescence at nearly 15 and the other still a sweet, non-scathing nearly 13, I’ve grown out of my honeymoon phase with teenhood. My older daughter displays text-book adolescent behavior. I know this because I skimmed a guide or two on “what to expect” from a teen. She has become sullen, less affectionate and often morose. I miss the child she used to be, and I find myself poring over photos from when she was still “sweet and loving.” Life became more about her friends, her selfies, her social media world; life with mom was relegated to a, “Okay, when I’m in the mood to engage you, perhaps I will.” When I’d start to really mourn the loss of our relationship she’d bounce back and be as chatty and engaging as she once was.

Colleagues commiserated with me by saying, “The degree of self-absorption that teenagers exhibit is downright abusive to the rest of us.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that statement because it was so accurate and so disagreeable.  The idea that the entire world, through the eyes of a teenage, is there for their convenience or ridicule and that parents are clueless pawns who, with the right amount of manipulation, give them the things they want. I refused to believe I could go from the fun-loving, skateboarding mom, into an object of disapproval. “But I’m everything that my mom wasn’t,” I told myself. “I tried so hard not to become that uptight, clueless parent.” I knew I was different, but I was starting to understand that the differences would not grant me immunity from disdain.

I recently asked my daughter what she liked, and didn’t like, about having a less-than-conventional mom. At the top of her list of dislikes was my Instagram account, which made me burst out laughing. It’s true, not many adults know what to do with Instagram, but I make an effort to stay out of her way on that social media outlet. Eventually she blocked me, and perhaps that’s how it should be from parent to child. This is not something to take personally — it’s just normal. On the positive side was, “You’re pretty chill about school and my grades. You let my friends sleep over a lot. And you give me a lot of freedom.” She knows the freedom comes with a strong stipulation: Be where you’re supposed to be, come home when you’re supposed to come home. The minute you give me reason to distrust you — everything changes.

I’m definitely not my mother, but that fact alone hasn’t magically cured adolescent friction for us. This realization has been rather sobering for me. In fact, it’s almost laughable to imagine that, if you do the opposite of what you didn’t like in your own mother’s parenting, you might bridge every one of the gaps she created between you. Just by being a more present and emotionally involved parent, I am creating an adolescence for my daughters that will not mimic my own. Yet, no parent is fully immune to alienation at some point or another. Teens have to pull away in order to fully test their wings, and eventually they come back, perhaps with a bit of gratitude for not clipping those wings.

Photo by Jayne Freeman

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.