Religion & Jewish Life

Learning from my children — a Jewish Mother’s Day confession

ATLANTA, Ga. (JTA) — When I was 8, I had names picked out for all of my future offspring (a dozen baby girls). At 13, I had my own babysitting business. After grad school, I was teaching a class of fourth-graders.

So by the time I became pregnant with my first child — a boy, go figure! — I knew exactly what kind of mother I was going to be: calm, organized and completely in charge.

Yeah, right.

If only back in those early days of motherhood I had gotten the Talmudic memo about teaching a child according to his way, I would have understood that one-size-fits-all parenting didn’t actually exist, thus saving myself loads of stress.

Ironically it would be my kids themselves who eventually taught me this fundamental truth of raising children, enlightening me one by one, and each according to his or her own unique way.

But I didn’t get that memo, and despite my intentions of being a cool-as-a-cucumber parent, the birth of my first child, Brandon, now 19, transformed me into a maternal tossed salad. For the first two years of his life I refused to leave the house without my “What to Expect” manual for fear I might need to make a baby tourniquet or something.

Impossibly, it would seem, Brandon grew to be the most serene and easygoing person I’ve ever known. Like a human tranquilizer, he puts me at ease, offering me a voice of reason in a way few others can.

“You should be less worried about me getting E. coli from a raw hamburger and more worried about me choking on this overcooked hockey puck,” he once said during dinner.

I had to laugh. He had a point — and it wasn’t the first time. I needed to chill. Maybe I’m not the unflappable parent I’d hoped to be, but thanks to my laid-back eldest, I’m a little closer to it.

Where Brandon was born to go with the flow, my second son, Alex, 17, carves his own current.

When he was 12, Alex wanted to take electric guitar lessons. I said no — he had enough going on with school, baseball and football. So he got some secondhand strings, taught himself to play via instructional YouTube videos and started a rock band with some middle-school buddies.

Take-charge Mama might have grounded her willful son, but something in me had changed. Instead of getting angry, I threw a huge party in the basement and invited everyone over for The Allies’ first concert.

Somewhere along the way, this staunchly inner-directed child had taught me that my purpose in parenting was not to tell him when, where and how to flap his wings, but to give him the ability to soar on his own.

By the time Jake came along, I was less hovering (thanks, Brandon) and less controlling (thanks, Alex). But I was still clinging to my super-organized, scheduled-down-to-the-last-minute tendencies. My third son changed all that.

Here is a 12-year-old brimming with curiosity, who collects information like other kids collect baseball cards. Mothering him is like being a perpetual contestant on “Jeopardy!”

The trouble is, joining Jake in his knowledge quests can take a lot of time. Practice with him for the geography bee? Of course. But I had to brush up first.

Read the “Hunger Games” series with him? Sure. And 28 hours of reading later (yes, 28!), we finally finished the last book. I wouldn’t have missed those juicy mother-son book chats for anything.

With Jake as my guide, I’ve learned to look up from my weekly planner every now and then to stop and smell the roses, even if they’re not exactly on the way.

But even avid rose-smelling couldn’t fend off the exhaustion that arrived with my final pregnancy. Ten years older than I was for round one, with 10 zillion more things to do, I doubted whether I’d ever drum up the energy to parent baby number four.

Enter my spirited Emma to help me find it.

Approaching the world as an ongoing wild party, my daughter dances, twirls and cartwheels her way through life. Her joie de vivre is as contagious to me as it is exhausting,  as renewing as it is bittersweet in its reminder that my days of little-kid parenting are coming to a close.

Emma recently beckoned me to her room to see a display of 12 dolls she’d lined up on her bed. “They’re my babies!” she announced, providing a wistful reminder of the girl I used to be.

“But how will I know how to be a good mommy?” she asked, suddenly serious.

“Don’t worry, Em,” I reassured her, “your children will teach you.”

Sharon Duke Estroff, the author of Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Random House), is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting advice columnist; a freelance feature writer for national magazines including Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Parents; and a parenting blogger for The Huffington Post.