jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

A Response to All the Things Our Parents Did Badly

I was standing in Jasper’s kindergarten classroom for orientation and during an awkward moment of quiet I  turned to the mother I’d just met and said, “I feel like our children’s lives are going to be a response to all the things our parents did badly.” She looked at me open-mouthed.

“Too soon?” I asked.

But as we looked around the gorgeous classroom and three (three!) teachers for this class of 15 fresh-scrubbed kids, the three-story play structure in the yard and the pen of teaching chickens outside, I realized it was true. Here we all are, organic feeding, playdate making, activity scheduling, fresh bread baking, apple picking, hard working uber-parents, in one way or another.

A few minutes later, the new mama sidled back up to me and said, “I walked to school by myself. In kindergarten. Can you imagine? The dogs! Crossing major roads! Myself!”

“Me too!” I replied. Although that would truly be the least of the childhood garbage in my psyche I’m navigating around, I was glad to see she was on board.

“The dogs…” she replied, and I could tell there was a deeper story for this gorgeous mama, too.

Jasper at the pick-up line, 2013

Jasper at the pick-up line, 2013

Somewhere I read something that said that we spend our childhood trying to survive being a child and then the rest of our life recovering from our childhood. I remember immediately responding. Exactly! That is exactly what I’ve been thinking since I turned 18. My whole MFA thesis show was predicated on this; we are struggling to swim out of the marshy, stinking mess of our childhoods, forever tethered to our parents, our siblings, our experiences.

And it wasn’t that my mother did such a bad job. When my siblings long to crucify my martyr mother for Our Childhood, even if I’ve just finished a tirade about her last visit  and how she tried to blame the sitter for dropping Reid in the parking lot when it was really her, well, I have to jump to her defense.

As an only child growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s poor in a house with an emotionally absent father (on a good day) and a mother who labored full-time as a waitress in Philly, what did my mom know about motherhood? With five kids in 14 years and almost as many miscarriages, a severely retarded child, a daughter with both visual and hearing impairments and a husband who was on tube-feeding and countless medications from soon after their fifth child was born until his death 18 years later, I mean, what was my mother going to do? From my current point of view, I appreciate the fact that she got us dressed each day, in clean clothing, no less! And she had precious few Mama friends to guide her.


Mom, second from left, 1952

A few weeks ago I was driving along talking to my mother on the phone enumerating our activities for the week as an explanation for my lack of phone calls. My mother sighed and said, “You do so much with them, Jennie.” I thought she was preparing an excellent compliment to my mothering abilities (which to her credit, she often does) when she said, “My mother never did that for me.”

“Mom?” I replied. “You never did that for us.”

“But that was different. We had your brother.”

My turn to sigh. “I know. I’m just pointing it out.”

Because we all have these stories, right? A recent playdate found me introducing two of my friends to each other.  “So, her father had a second secret family while she was growing up and her dad was in jail. Guess that trumps 18 years of patriarchal tube feeding and a brother who watched television 24/7 and pooped in his chair all day long…”

Who taught any of us to be good mothers or fathers? How in the world do we know how to be a healthy family, anyway?

All these mama friends, by the way, are amazing. Inspiring. And such good moms and guiding friends in their own ways. How did we do this? Survive the childhood, recover from the childhood, and now most importantly, build the childhood for our own kids.

On a great day we find the flow, channel the love, seize the day! On a mediocre day we just try to right the wrongs done to us throughout our childhoods, whether that’s outdoor activities every day, a school with chickens, driving them to school, living healthfully, or intentionally building their self-esteem. And on the bad days I for one will yell at them things like, “Put your sneakers on yourself. You’re 3 for god’s sake! It’s not rocket science!” or “This is quiet time! I do not want you yelling for me unless you have a pencil sticking out of your eye socket!” (Yes, I said these things.)

So that someday when Reid calls me to proudly tell me about how she focuses on restorative love flooding, or whatever the new mama mantra of the day will be in thirty years, I’ll say, “My mother never did that for me!” and she’ll reply, “Really, Mom? Really?!”


12 comments on “A Response to All the Things Our Parents Did Badly

  1. The Bumble Files
    November 18, 2013

    I think it’s a new age in parenting. I come for a family of six kids and my parents seemed to be out of the picture entirely. I know they weren’t, but it sure feels that way. We did a lot by ourselves, walking to school, kids babysitting kids, homework, even staying out really late at the movies, by ourselves. We did that! I would never allow my kids to do this. Of course, I go to all the movies with them. I do remember a lot of unscheduled play time. That, I think my kids could use more of, but it’s getting better now that they’re a little older. Nice post, Jen!

    • jgroeber
      November 18, 2013

      Prize for fastest reader is YOU! It’s so wild trying to balance doing the things I’d wish I’d gotten to do as a kid while allowing them to just be, play unguided, get into a healthy bit of trouble. Less TV, more fresh veggies, more books, less… well, TV! This new blogging thing is a mystery but it’s getting props from friends and uber-bloggers like you that makes it really fun. Thanks so much for reading.

      • The Bumble Files
        November 18, 2013

        Oh, thanks!! I love a prize. Yay!! I’m going to try to start a reading hour with my kids. No devices!! We’ll see how it goes. I’m glad you’re having fun with your blog. Way to go. It’s my pleasure.

  2. rcinc
    November 18, 2013

    “Put your sneakers on yourself. You’re 3 for god’s sake! It’s not rocket science!” or “This is quiet time! I do not want you yelling for me unless you have a pencil sticking out of your eye socket!” (Yes, I said these things.) THANK YOU for writing that…. I actually spit out my water when I read it because I’ve said those exact words, although I think I was talking about fastening their own seat belt. Wonderful entry as always, keep writing.

    • jgroeber
      November 18, 2013

      Oh, the seat belts!! Don’t even get me started on the seat belts! Although by the time we’re in the driveway I’m usually apoplectic and nonsensical, “Frithflah blarg filth BELTS!!” Thank you for commiserating. Sometimes I get to thinking, “Maybe their childhoods will actually seem WORSE than mine someday. Sigh. Bad, Mama.” Ha! So appreciate your reading and comment. Thank you!

  3. Judi
    November 18, 2013

    While I want my kids to remember the amazing home-made Halloween costumes and my ever-presence at all of their activities, they seem to recall me closing the car door on David’s 4 year old fingers and picking my daughter up late from dance class (and the fear of abandonment that went with that). Let’s face it, we are all flawed as parents and our kids will either reflect on it fondly or pour it out to a therapist later in life. There is just no changing the angle from which anyone perceives their own experience. As always, I am so proud of you for sharing your musings with us.

    • jen groeber
      November 25, 2013

      Honestly, how am I just seeing this?! Love the reference to the Halloween costumes and the car door. Life is like that. I have no idea which investment (good or bad) I make that they’ll remember (or that will pay off) except hopefully the loving them. I do think we have a potential edge in this technological age. I take photos of everything. Everything! So at least I have proof that I did these things for them and they were smiling, if only for a moment. Thanks so much for reading. It really means the world!

  4. mollytopia
    November 20, 2013

    Awesome awesome awesome. I can relate to every bit of this story – just different names and faces. So well written, and such compassion even with the hard-hitting honesty. I’m so glad we met. Great post.

    • jen groeber
      November 25, 2013

      And how did I miss this comment?! When I’ve read every joyous post of yours, how do I miss it when you come to visit me? Egads! I’m such a sloppy hostess. Really sloppy. You should see my refrigerator… Thanks so much for the comment. As a newbie in this blogo-world I’m sometimes at a loss as to what I’m doing out here. Having cool people out in the ether relate to what I wrote- voila! That would be why I came to this world. Please come again. I promise I’ll try to clean out the refrigerator…

      • mollytopia
        November 27, 2013

        Hahaha oh girl it happens to all of us, believe it. I will be back soon. Like right after I hit reply : )

  5. Margie S
    March 15, 2014

    I soooo get this post. Yes, I do believe our parenting is the pendulum swinging to the other side as a reaction to our experience. While it can be a bit laughable, I don’t regret much.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      I think sometimes it’s just how we learn. So glad you could relate!

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2013 by in Memory, Surviving Motherhood, The Children and tagged , , , , .

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