woman holding baby

Dear young mom,

You look at me and see a grandmother who had her chance. You figure what I could tell you about being a mother would begin and end with a rotary phone. Nothing I know would apply now in this whole different world, more enlightened, informed, nutritious.

You would be wrong. I can tell you things that I could only know now after 42 years of being a mother. They are things that your best mom friends couldn’t possibly know, things your own mother knows but doesn’t tell you because she figures you wouldn’t get it, you’d roll your eyes like you were fifteen and say, “I know, Mother,” like you did in the kitchen when she told you breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

But I can tell you because I don’t know you.

First is the most important: Being a mother is a much longer game than you realize. You are never finished. Your product is never complete. As long as you can blink once for yes and twice for no, your children are orbiting your planet. Even when they say they’ve spun away, even when other people love them, even when they are too old to cry for their mother, they want what only you have to give to them. You will be dead a long time before they stop wanting what you had to give them. Even in that last second of life, what you do or say can change the course of their history. Silence or a word.

Second is this: The person you are matters more than what you do for your children. There is a reason ducklings follow their mother everywhere. It is how they learn to see and interpret the world. How she sees it is how they see it, the routes she takes along the lake shore, they take. They hide where she hides, take the chances she decides are good risks. If you tell your child to be brave and stand up to a bully while you let your husband berate you for spending too much money, it will be your cowardice that is remembered, not your tough words. Who are you besides their mother? Make that person someone to emulate.

And last: Your children’s lives will be better if they have many parents. If you have room in your heart for more than one child, then they have room in their hearts for more than one parent. But you need to get out of the way. Out of the way of their father, first and foremost. This is the hardest because the position of owning the last and final word in child-raising has been women’s only power territory for centuries. We have other power now. Time to let go. Also time to let there be other pictures on the wall. The step-parents, aunts, uncles, mentors, the people who are part of your children’s constellations. You are a big star but not the only one. That your children love other people, have had other people parent them by whatever means, isn’t a sign of their disloyalty. It’s a sign of your wisdom.

So these are the three things I would tell you, young mom. Things I only know because I am 66 and have spent two-thirds of my life as a mother. The long view is the great surprise gift of aging, letting the movie run into many reels unedited. You might think the movie ends when you do, when you shut your eyes for the final time, your children standing around your bed murmuring about whether someone should call Aunt Ida and everything going dark until you see the great white light people always talk about. But the movie doesn’t end there. That’s the secret, dear young mom.

The movie never ends.