My Mom Let Me Struggle and That Set Me up for Success

My Mom Let Me Struggle and That Set Me up for Success

Before I had my son, I loved to critique my mother’s parenting. I would think of all the things she didn’t do for me: arrange after-school activities, plan my class schedule, or solve my problems. If only she had supervised more, I would have avoided some messy situations.

“Oh shoot!” I screamed to my college roommate in Boulder when I realized I had slept through my alarm. I was going to miss my flight from Denver to LAX, where I was supposed to meet up with my parents and brother for a family wedding. I can’t remember the details of the party the night before, but I’m sure it involved a keg and some leafy plants.

“My parents are going to flip!” I said. My dad, an aerospace engineer, had coordinated the family’s flights into LAX (probably on a spreadsheet) so we could all drive to Malibu together.

This was 1990. There was no Uber, Google Maps, or Waze. I called my parents from a payphone when I arrived. “You’ll have to figure out how to get here. We are not coming back to get you.” They said.

The nerve! My mom should have called me the night before to remind me of the early morning flight. And she let me experience consequences!

At first, I fumed. Then I sulked. And then I made a plan. I took dozens of buses. The 30-mile trip lasted three hours. The last thing I felt was elated. I did it!

My mom gave me so many opportunities to find my own way through struggles. Eunice Alperstein Diamond wasn’t a negligent mom. She is deeply caring and empathetic. She wasn’t trying to teach me a specific set of lessons. She just lived her own life and never assumed that she could (or should) control mine.

Wow. Am I another kind of mom! As I struggle to raise my son in a very different world, in a very different time, I value the edge my mom provided, intended or not, in handling life’s curveballs. I’m not sure I’m doing the same for my son.

Marty came into this world a week after my 43rd birthday. I approached motherhood like a journalist. I consumed parenting books and interviewed friends about best practices and mistakes made. I would do this right. Marty was my next big project.

When he was a toddler, I enrolled Marty in music, art, and soccer classes. He took some chess lessons and started piano when he was 5. I thought nothing of it. There were many after-school programs, and I needed child care. It was the norm on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

But I wasn’t just overscheduling; I was Marty’s personal assistant. He pointed—I grabbed. He asked—I answered.

When Marty was 4, I asked my mother-in-law, who specialized in early childhood education, for parenting advice. She had one suggestion, “The playground.” She said, “Drop him off at the sandbox and walk away for an hour. Do not supervise.” I wish I could say that I took her advice.

Instead, I always supervised. I fell into this over-involved way of parenting that never burdened my own mother.

My mom was a social worker. We lived in a typical home. We took vacations in cars, not airplanes. We didn’t often eat out, but we had a full fridge.

Many days after school, when I was 10, about my son’s age, I rode my bike to Robin Rothstein’s house alone . We didn’t confirm plans in advance. Our mothers didn’t schedule our playtime. I just gave it a shot.

I made small talk until Robin came out of her room. We took off on our bikes, exploring nearby woods. Sometimes we met up with other kids to play. Whatever problems came up, we figured them out. We had to—there weren’t any adults around.

When I write about my childhood 40 years later, I feel like I’m describing life on Mars.

My mom focused on feelings, not future outcomes. “How did you feel about that?” She would ask me when I talked to her about a problem. She never jumped in, offering me solutions. Her way out of a tricky situation was to sit with the uncomfortable feelings.

Years before social/emotional intelligence became a buzz phrase, Eunice Diamond had a mood meter. “It sounds like a really frustrating experience.” She would empathize and encourage me to work it out, whatever “it” was.

When I was a kid, “it” was something small. Later in college, “it” was managing a stressful situation, like the time I called my mom in a panic about my senior thesis. It was due just after spring break senior year, and I was way behind.

I wanted two things and could only have one: to graduate with honors or to party with my friends on a houseboat in Lake Powell, Utah.

I called my mom. “Should I ask for an extension?”

“You have to do what you feel is right. You’ll work ‘it’ out,” she said.

If only she had sent me a color-coded study schedule at the beginning of the semester, I wouldn’t have had this problem!

I spent the week in Norlin Library. When I read the words magna cum laude next to my name at graduation, I knew I made the right decision.

After college, the “it” I needed to work out became more painful as I confronted real-life situations. But I was prepared, sort of like a vaccination, thanks to prior exposures.

The biggie was three days before my wedding. My fiancé called it off, as I wrote in this earlier blog. I felt lost. Alone. Damaged.

My mom sprang into action. This time, I needed her help. We found a 5th-floor walkup apartment on the Upper West Side, and she and my dad helped move me in. I exhaled.

She never tried to stop my tears. “It’s painful, Becky,” she said as she gripped my hand.

“You will work it out,” she assured me.

My mom confided in me that she was actually relieved. She never cared about my ex-fiancé’s stellar academic pedigree or his high-tech stock options. She thought he didn’t love me enough. “And you are worthy of great love,” she told me.

My 1950’s-style mom encouraged me to focus more on my career and less on finding a husband.

In that moment of despair, she helped me understand that I couldn’t control every situation, but I could choose how to respond. After my wedding-that-wasn’t, I threw myself a pity party, and then I pursued my goal of becoming a war reporter. I didn’t let the fact that I had no experience in conflict zones curb my enthusiasm.

One afternoon two years later, I called my mom with exciting news. “I am going to Iraq for CNN!” Pause. “Mom, I’m going to Iraq!” What mother wouldn’t want to hear that her daughter was going to Iraq, one of the world’s premier hot spots?

“Becky, I know you make good choices. But I’m worried about your safety,” she said, searching for the right words. “I can feel how much this means to you, and I know you’ll work it out.”

One trip to Iraq turned into many in different war zones around the world. There were grueling walks with U.S. forces on patrol in Iraq and Afghanistan, river crossings in homemade canoes in Southern Sudan, and sky-high demands from news managers sitting in an office thousands of miles away. I always figured "it" out and never missed a deadline, thanks to Eunice Diamond’s life lessons.

How did you let me explore the world without worry?

I am in awe of your confidence, compassion, and courage. You let me feel deeply, without judgment, shame, or fear. You never pressured me to be someone I wasn’t. You gave me space to find my passions and build a purpose-filled life.

Life is more complicated than I anticipated. I didn’t expect so many twists and wrong turns. But you helped me develop the skills I needed to find my way and land on my feet. Now, I carry those memories around with pride, like souvenirs in my soul. You enabled me to form a superhero inside of me. She is fierce and strong.

I want to do the same for Marty. But I have to fight the urge to hold him tight and shield him from pain. I know the best protection I could give him is to let him struggle, gently over time. It’s hard for me Mom. At 52, I am not too old for your advice.

I know you will tell me, “Parenthood is challenging. It feels uncomfortable at times.”

I don’t need you to say the rest. Thanks to you, I know I will work it out. And so will Marty.

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