The night my mother told me that her cancer was terminal, she came into my room to say good night, same as she always did. “I’m so sorry I’m not going to be at your wedding, Anna,” she said. Lying there in the dark, 14 years old, this seemed like the least of our worries, and her words surprised me. She saw a string of events — graduations, careers, births — that would happen without her; all I saw was a fathomless blank. But those words were a remarkable gift. My mother saw me getting on with my life, and she believed I could do it.
One of the things that strikes me about snowplow parenting, the helpful term highlighted for us by the college admissions scandal, is that it assumes the parents will always be around to do the plowing. But that’s never where my mind goes. Instead, I think about how to raise my kids with resilience, and how to love them to smithereens so they can, eventually, muddle through the world without me. My mother faced an extreme version of this: how to prepare my brother and me for a world in which she was gone.
Recently I’ve started thinking about what she modeled for us during those years — resilience; a clear understanding of the values of our family; and an ability to put one foot in front of the other during a slow-rolling disaster — and how to pass those things on to my own small children. (Minus, hopefully, the disaster.) So much parenting is now judged on outcomes such as, say, acceptance at an elite college, that it can seem like what your child has accomplished is more important than who they are. But the real work of parenting is internal — it’s the business of building humanity.
Did my mother plan strategically? Did she try to cram a lifetime of parenting into the three to four years her doctors gave her? I don’t know, but I think probably not. Her main desire was to keep things as normal as possible, and for the most part, she did that in those years before she died, when I was 17. My brother and I went to school, my dad went to his office, and even when my mother was too sick to keep working, she still did the permission slips and organized the family trips. Turns out there was a reason for all of this. Predictability helps children build resilience.
“One of the ways children can process grief is by having things continue in a very predictable, reliable way — the same old, the same old,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the parenting books “Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “Voice Lessons for Parents.” Predictability, she explains, is part of the family infrastructure that lets the wonderful, weird, magical moments of childhood unfold; moments that are essential to developing the reserves to face challenges. Building resilience also requires something we aren’t very good at these days, Mogel says, which is slowing down.
“You have to leave enough time at each of the pivot points in the day for your child to be able to spot an interesting rock, or a butterfly, or for both of you to stop because there’s a crocus coming up,” Mogel says. “You have to be captivatable.” Sunshine, time in nature, singing, bedtime stories and jumping off from a book into a world that the child creates are all ingredients in the unremarkable happiness of kids.
Mogel’s focus on fun may seem strange when we are conditioned to think that resilience comes from constantly surmounting challenges. But it doesn’t. There’s a push-pull: A child needs a secure foundation, and memory upon memory of happiness, to layer challenges over. My mother wasn’t actually the fun parent — that honor fell to my father, who built the forts and played the games and read most of the stories — but she understood the importance of that time and protected it for us.
“Consider your stewardship of fun and imagination and interest as important as your stewardship of their performance in school or their behaviors,” Mogel says. “Follow them, let them lead.” Nature, she explains, is an excellent co-parent. Even a scramble over rocks down to a creek bed is an excellent way for kids to navigate a challenge.
And finally, focus on “tiny rituals — trying to get your child to school on time every morning without rushing; greeting them at the end of the day by saying, ‘I thought of you today when — .’” It shows you held them in your mind even when you’re weren’t with them. Because resilience doesn’t come from an absence of delight and love; it comes from having a lot of it. As a friend and longtime early educator told me, delighting in your child is probably the most important thing you can do for them. The concern about overpraise, coddling and clearing all obstacles is legitimate, but it’s a separate issue.
In fact, the parents swept up in the college admissions indictments could probably have avoided it if they’d asked themselves: Am I being the kind of adult I hope my child will grow into? My mother awed me with her conduct and standards. I will never forget, when I was 15 and trying to wiggle out of an invitation I’d accepted to a party, how she pinned me down with her gaze and said, “You said you were going to this party, with this person, and that’s what you are going to do.” End of discussion. In the decades since, whenever a morally thorny question comes up, I picture her standing with full authority in her bathrobe, and imagine what she would say.
She and my dad also modeled the kind of low-key, everyday courage it takes to be in pain and keep moving forward. When it came to processing as a family, we didn’t always get it right — we had no bucket list and no language for grief, and we paid a price for that once she was gone. But I saw both my parents acknowledge that something was hard and move forward, and it is one of the things I’ve remained most grateful for, especially when my own pregnancy went off the rails.
Seven weeks before my son was due, I developed severe preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome. My son had to be delivered; the possibility of a liver transplant was mentioned. But I’d watched my mother keep it together for her children during a long illness, and I could certainly manage it for a night.
And then, 30 hours after my son was born, when I finally got to hold him, I sang the songs she had sung to me. I said funny little things to him. His hands were the size of quarters, he would look at me for a second and then his eyes would roll up from the effort. But we understood each other.
Together, we started the serious business of allowing the world to slowly, hilariously, beautifully unfold.
Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. She’s working on a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom. Find her online at annanordberg.com.