As the mother of an only child, every milestone for my 6-year-old son is also one for me. There is no mastery, no second or third time around, no history of parenting successes to draw upon; there’s only trial and error, every time.
This epiphany came to me the this winter, when my son was having a play date at our home. My son swaggered into the room with as much chest-forward macho as a 6-year-old can muster. “Mom, Sofia and I can have candy canes, right?”
I’m strict about giving sugar to kids without their parents’ permission. So I denied the request, and my son dissolved into an emotional fit of tears and wailing. He knows I don’t like to discipline him in front of company and he banked on me going easy. I didn’t cave, and the drama escalated until I had to insist on a tearful time-out in his room, all the while his friend looked on, I imagined her thinking: my mom would have given him the candy cane.
Once engaged in that sort of battle of wills, there’s no turning back for fear of not being believed the next time. The whole thing, merely 10 minutes at most, left me exhausted and sad because the simplest tests elicit the same thought: I have no idea if what I’m doing is right. A friend of mine, a mother of four kids who range in ages from 9 to 25, would have handed over the candy cane or offered a substitute treat because, as she has pointed out, “With kids you have to pick your battles.” I had clearly picked the wrong battle.
In the big scheme of things it was a no-big-deal situation. Not the more intense moments, like when I’ve yelled at my child because I had a bad day, or when my son has tested my boundaries and pushed me to tears.
But it’s not the mundane challenges things that cause me trouble; with no map to chart my path, each developmental milestone is new for me too. I join my son in his every epiphany–like the joyful moments of using baby signs, riding a bike, or learning to read—or the tough lessons, like when his Tae Kwan Do teacher penalized him harder for goofing off than the other kids because he is a senior belt, or lying to a friend and having to apologize.
Each sting and defeat of his is one for me, too. As a first time mom, there is no sense of comfort in having been down this road before–the way is fresh at every step.
While I can’t draw upon prior child-rearing experiences to help me through the stages, occasionally I can help a new mother whose child is younger than mine. Or take my good friend, pregnant for the first time at 38, who I’ve been able to comfort over the agonies of the first trimester, reassuring her that it does get better. But I’m learning that I have to cut myself some slack: just as I watch my son stumble through difficult stages, so do I. The mother of an only child is forever a neophyte.
I rely upon the reassurances of my friends with more. My friend Alegra, a mother of three whose kids range from ages 5 to 10, reminds me that children come into the world with a temperament all their own and that not every moment of lashing out or not listening is a sign of my bad parenting. And as I thought about that I realized my son’s essential temperament is the same as it was when he was a baby. I was simply too new at parenting to know which of his baby and toddler behaviors were true to him, a result of my parenting, or simply “the age.”
And perhaps, too, the kernel of the mother I would become one day has also been with me all along — that even if I were to have more children some inherent style of parenting would remain.
Each time my son changes, requiring new boundaries and understanding that challenges me, I try to remind myself what a friend said to me when Ben was just a baby: “I don’t feel like I’ve become a good mom; I feel like I’ve just learned how to be Hank’s mom.”
For the mother of one, that’s all I need to be: the best mom for Ben.
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