After almost 27 years of being a mother, I have finally become just pretty darn smart. My three sons may laugh hysterically at such a ridiculous notion, but they shouldn’t, for most of what I have learned over the years I have learned from them.
Back when I first jumped onboard the motherhood train, there was no Google to answer my every question or to squelch my slightest concern. There was no email or online chat, and my mom–with all her wisdom and years of experience–lived three hours away and could only be reached through expensive, long-distance phone calls. I compiled a running list of questions to ask her on our Sunday morning visits, but for the rest of the week I was on my own. Well, maybe not entirely, for I did have my well worn copies of The American Medical Association Family Medical Guide and The Well Baby Book for reference, as well as all my single friends and family members who seemed to think that their lack of children made them unbiased experts on the topic of raising other people’s offspring.
Most of my learning, though, came through simple trial and error; miraculously, my children survived (as did I)–perhaps a little battered and battle-worn, but survivors nonetheless.
From my sons I learned, for example, that a little bit of dirt never hurt anyone. Food that fell on the kitchen floor could be picked up, dusted off, and safely consumed without tragic side effects (as long as there were no guests present). It took a while for my sons to understand, though, that the same rule did not apply to someone else’s gum found adhered to the grocery store floor.
I also learned that vowing never to spank my child was an easy promise to keep–at least, until Son 1 (such an adorable little angel) turned into a screaming, foot-stomping, food-throwing two-year-old monster. I knew better than to make the same vow with Son 2 and Son 3.
I learned that little boys are going to fight. They are going to intentionally trip each other (and then tattle when the victim retaliates), slam each other against bedroom walls, kick each other in the “privates,” destroy each other’s toys, say incredibly hateful things–and, most likely, they are still going to grow up to be best friends.
I learned that little boys couldn’t resist the urge to pee outside anymore than grown men can. I also learned that arcing the flow off of a second-story deck was irresistible, especially when an unsuspecting older brother just happened to be walking through below.
I learned that beige carpet was a really poor floor covering choice when there were three small boys in the home. Despite my best policing efforts, mud was tracked in and Hawaiian Punch was spilled. Son 2 liked to sneak food into his bedroom, even though he knew eating in the bedroom was against the rules. Apparently, I almost walked in on him once in the middle of consuming his contraband, and he quickly stashed it under his bed–and then forgot about it. Some time later I was rearranging his bedroom when I discovered a plate-sized, fudge-colored stain on the beige carpet beneath his bed with a popsicle stick lying in the middle of the stain. I also learned that creative furniture placement can hide most carpet stains and wall scribbles.
I learned that sometimes it’s okay to lie to your children. “Santa Claus is watching you” was a great deterrent to misbehavior in our house for many glorious years. (And sometimes all three sons–but especially Son 1–needed to be reminded that Santa Claus was watching even in July, not just in the weeks leading up to Christmas.)
I learned that when no other cleaning supplies were readily available, a mother’s spit was a suitable alternative.
I learned the importance of follow-up questions. It was not enough to ask, “Did you put on clean underwear?” without also asking, “Did you take off the dirty underwear first?” Similarly, “Did you brush your teeth?” needed to be followed with, “Did you use your toothbrush and toothpaste?” and “Let me smell your breath.” And when the question, “Do you have any homework?” was answered with, “Nope!” it was also necessary to ask, “What about English? What about science? Social studies? Math?” And then the miraculously remembered assignment was pulled from the book bag.
I learned that when three-year-old Son 1 handed me the phone and there was a voice on the other end speaking in a language I did not recognize, it was essential to hang up immediately. Overseas calls (yes, plural) turned out to be quite expensive.
I learned that children could survive on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for a long, long time. I may not have won any June Cleaver awards for those menu selections, but I didn’t earn the distinction of “Worst Mother in the World,” either, for forcing them to eat brussel sprouts and asparagus.
I learned that sometimes I just had to laugh and go on. Son 3 did everything he could to entertain his older brothers, often at my expense. When he was about five years old, he would frequently wait until we were next in line at the grocery store check-out before loudly (and inaccurately) proclaiming, “Mom farted!”–much to my horror but to the gut-clutching delight of his brothers as well as the cashiers and carry-out boys (who were usually my current or former students).
I learned that the third one was so much easier to raise than the first two–not because he was a better child (which he will most likely dispute) but because I was a better parent by the third time around. Or was I just more relaxed (i.e., tired)? Certainly, the panicked “Oh my God!” frequently uttered during Son 1’s childhood was, by Son 3, replaced with a much more nonchalant, “Whatever. Don’t bug me unless somebody’s bleeding.”
I learned that I could never have too many Band-Aids, popsicles or paper towels.
I learned that if I forgot to check pockets before putting clothes into the washing machine, I was pretty much guaranteeing that crayons would be melted onto blue jeans in the dryer.
I learned that the hour right before bedtime had the magical power to elicit previously forgotten responsibilities–snacks that needed to be baked for tomorrow’s party, a uniform that needed to be washed for tomorrow’s game, difficult math homework that needed to be explained by a sleep-deprived, geometry-challenged parent.
I learned not to show fear when a snake, lizard, mouse, or other backyard catch was presented for my inspection and approval (such fear would have been just cause for delightedly attempting to throw the small critter in my face). I drew the line on tarantulas, though.
I learned that every deceased pet deserved a proper backyard burial (and, because my sons had so many pets, I learned to keep shoeboxes on hand specifically for that purpose).
I learned that all three sons would break my heart a hundred times over–and mend it repeatedly with a smile, a hug, or a tearful “I’m sorry.”
I learned that buying teenagers a cell phone and putting it on my family plan (hence my bill) was still no guarantee that they would answer the phone when they knew it was me on the other end.
I learned to be more specific in giving directions because telling a teenager to “Clean your room” implied that he and I had the same standards on cleanliness. A detailed list was much more likely to elicit the desired effect: “Make your bed. Throw the dirty clothes in the clothes hamper (not next to it). Pick up the clean clothes off the floor and hang them in the closet (and I know which ones are clean, so they better not end up in the clothes hamper). Throw all food wrappers, soda cans, and wadded up pieces of paper in the trash can, and take all dirty dishes to the sink (and then rinse them and put them in the dishwasher). Do NOT stuff anything under your bed–in fact, get everything out from under your bed that you put there the last time I told you to clean your room.”
I learned that teenagers who are given money to pick up a few things at the grocery store will conveniently forget to return the change unless asked for it.
I learned to pick my battles. Hair length was not one of them. Son 1 would cut his hair when he finally got tired of dealing with it, and Son 3 would cut his hair when it got too hot.
I learned that no matter how much I would have liked to, I couldn’t pick their friends or their girlfriends. I learned that the less advice given, the better, and eventually they would figure out for themselves which friends to steer clear of and which girlfriends to bid a tearful farewell.
I learned that few things elicit as much joy as a phone call from an adult child. (I wish I had fully realized the importance of those phone calls while my mom was still alive.)
I tried to teach my sons to be thoughtful and kind, tolerant and strong. I tried to teach them the difference between right and wrong and the importance of valuing every living thing in the world around them. I tried to foster their self-confidence and creativity, and I tried to instill in them a sense of justice and beauty. I believe I was successful, but I also know that for everything I tried to teach them, they taught me more just by being who they were.
This year was the first Mother’s Day that I did not have all three sons at home to help me enjoy the day, but they all remembered to call (without being prompted by their dad), and two of them also acknowledged the day on Facebook. Below is a Facebook exchange with Son 2:
- Son 2 (status post): My mom had three kids. None of them have ended up in jail (that she knows of), done drugs, or murdered anyone. Kudos mom! Job well done!
- Me: They have all graduated from high school and have (or will) graduate from college. They have not stolen cars, burned down houses, rolled a homeless dude, killed helpless animals for pleasure, or starred in a porno flick (that I know of). You’re right–I have done my job well!
- Son 2: About the porno flick …
- Me: NOOOOOOOOO!!!
- Son 2: I’ll spare the details for my memoirs. And yes, that was plural.
- Me: Please wait until after I’m dead to write those memoirs–I’d hate for you to live with the guilt of knowing that it was your life stories that caused the fatal heart attack that put me in the ground.
- Son 2: Ground? I thought you wanted to be cremated and shot out of a hot dog cannon over the Grand Canyon.
And that’s where the conversation ended because I have also learned that when it comes to a battle of wits with any of my sons, I am going to be the loser. Eventually, it’s easier to just accept that defeat is inevitable and go ride my bike.