We all came from one, we’re all born with one, and nearly half of us will end up being one. There’s no formal training, no exam to pass, no certificate to say you’re qualified. It can happen by chance, by choice, even by default. But once you become one, that’s it: you’re one forever! You can’t change it, disguise it or resign.
What are you worth if you are one? Hard to say. No bank’s yet been able to put a dollar-value on one. Some are rated priceless by those who know them well – others are overlooked, under-valued, ignored.
That’s why, on one Sunday each year, in the month of May, we pause to remember … our mothers!
And that’s why, in this edition of Grapevine, we’ve talked with a bloke who knows more about motherhood than most other mere males. Rob Parsons is his name. He’s listened to and talked with countless thousands of mums. And his book The Sixty Minute Mother has been a runaway best-seller worldwide.
So we just had to track him down …
GRAPEVINE: A man – talking about motherhood? Sounds risky, Rob …
ROB: Well, a number of years ago I wrote The Sixty Minute Father – about mistakes I’d made when my kids were small. I tried to, well, just lift the lid on fatherhood … and, incredibly, it took off! Today, I’m the founder of a UK outfit called ‘Care for the Family’, and over the past decades, thousands of people have been to the seminars we run.
Increasingly, I’ve realised two things:
most of those who attend are mothers, and
I spend more time talking to mothers about parenting than fathers – by a factor of 10-to-one easily.
Mums began asking me, “What about our book? You’ve given lots of advice we like, you’ve listened to thousands of mums, you’ve thought about what they’ve said – so how about it?” That freed me to write down the tips and insights I’ve picked up over these years – mostly from mothers – and share them in a new book – that’s actually called: The Sixty Minute Mother talks to Rob Parsons.
GRAPEVINE: That ‘Sixty Minute’ label? Isn’t parenting a lifetime business?
ROB: Well, originally, these were supposed to be books you could read in an hour: Sixty Minute Father … Sixty Minute Marriage … You’d have to be a speed-reader to get through Sixty Minute Mother in an hour – but the tag line stuck. It’s really meant to suggest they’re quick and easy-to-read, not heavy or unfathomable.
GRAPEVINE: Bookshops are packed with books on parenting these days – by untold ‘experts’. How can mums sort out which ones are worth reading?
ROB: My view is there aren’t any real ‘experts’. I can remember when my son was 15 and driving me utterly crazy. So there I was in my office – re-reading everything I’d ever picked up on parenting (including what I’d written!) – and nothing seemed much help. But eventually, I’d come across some little thing, a little glimmer of hope. And I’d think, “Oh, that might be worth a try!”
And sometimes … it was!
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS:
My advice is: don’t get too screwed up. There are no experts – only other people like you, struggling through another day, learning a few lessons here and there as they go.
GRAPEVINE: Do we worry too much, as parents, about what others think?
ROB: We certainly do – and it’s vital not to. We mustn’t – mustn’t – worry about what others make of our parenting. If we do, we’ll drive ourselves and our kids crazy.
GRAPEVINE: But most mums still feel guilty …
ROB: Yes, and it’s staggering how guilty they feel. If we ask an audience of, say, a thousand mothers, “What word most perfectly sums up how you feel about your role as a mother?” – 70 to 80% mention guilt!
So you ask why, and they say, “I don’t know. I just feel guilty. If I stay at home, I feel guilty that I’m bored. If I go to work, I feel guilty I’m short-changing them.”
A woman came up to me at a recent seminar in floods of tears. When I asked what was wrong she said, “I’ve got a girl of seven, another of six, and a boy of four. And the six-year-old’s breaking my heart. She’s ruling my life. She’s so difficult and testing!” Then she added, “I hate admitting this, but I’m not even sure that I love her!” (Here’s a woman who loves the child so much she’d give her life for her.)
So I said, “Oh that’s very common.” She looked at me as if I’d just landed from Mars!
I added, “I hear that all the time! You’ve got a really testing child on your hands. Friends will tell you she’ll grow out of it … she won’t! She’s going to test you as a child, a teenager and an adult. But it’s all NORMAL!”
“Really?” she marvelled. “I just thought I was a terrible mother …”
That’s one of the big consequences of the breakdown of extended family. Mums in her situation used to be able to have chats and advice from their own mothers and aunts and so on. Now, they’re isolated, and often convinced they’re doing everything wrong.
Added to which, we’re all trying to prove that our kids are fantastic and we’ve got it all together. Right from the earliest stages, when mums go to Plunket, the discussion is: “Is yours walking?” “Is he talking?” “Is she sitting up?” It’s all about achievement. And you don’t want to admit that yours are driving you CRAZY!
GRAPEVINE: So do those guilty feelings fade once mums realise they’re not alone?
ROB: Yes, if we can just turn on a little light, and even help them laugh at themselves. We try to say things like: If you work and you feel guilty that you’re not spending time with your kids, just remember there are millions of mums at home feeling exactly the opposite guilt!
GET OFF THE GUILT-TRIP:
If working’s your lifestyle and you have to live that way, then do it with all your heart! If you’re at home and you worry that you’re becoming boring, just remember: you’re giving your kids a fantastic amount of your time – enjoy that!
If you’ve got a testing, troublesome child it’s not because you’re a negligent mother … you’re just living through tough times.
We need to ease up. Life’s pressurised enough – we don’t need to make it even worse for ourselves.
GRAPEVINE: Okay, so what’s the most important thing I can give my child?
ROB: The usual answer is ‘love’ … but I think ‘acceptance’ is more important. Unless children feel accepted, they’ll never believe they’re loved.
I recall one woman – very slim, attractive. Her daughter was 14, and a little overweight. In my presence, the mother remarked, poking her in the tummy, “You know, Sarah, I’m 40 and you’re 14 – but I’m in better shape than you!”
Does she love that child? Oh yes! She’d give her life for her.
Does she accept her? No!
I remember talking to another girl who came running home waving a report card and saying, “Hey, I’ve come second in the school music exam!” And mum replies, “Why can’t you ever come first?”
GRAPEVINE: Are you saying we shouldn’t encourage our kids to aim for excellence?
ROB: No. Acceptance needn’t stop us motivating the lazy little tykes to do better. But we need to make sure they know we love them anyway – however well or badly they’re doing.
Acceptance searches for gifts that school often doesn’t find. I say to mums, “Don’t read your kids’ school reports as though they’re an infallible prophecy of their future lives.”
My first child, Katie, was always terrible at sports. I desperately wanted a child who excelled, so I’d go to all her sports days – and she’d come last, every time. But one day, incredibly, she was out in the lead!
I nudged the guy next to me, “That’s my daughter!” and screamed out “GO FOR IT, KATIE!”
Whereupon, my little girl stopped, turned, searched for me in the crowd, waved and said, “Hello Daddy!”
… and the rest of the race trundled past!
After that, I stopped trying to make Katie a sportsperson. Katie’s a poet!
Lloyd, my son, loves sport. He hates reading – and for ages I tried to make him like Katie. It’s funny. If a kid comes home and announces, “I got an A in biology and an A in chemistry and an A in English … and a C in geography” – what do we spend the next hour talking about? “How can we fix up your geography?”
The whole world wants to work on my weaknesses and tries to make me be something I can’t be. But love accepts!
MISSING THE MAGIC:
What acceptance says is, “OK, you’re not top in physics or chemistry … but you have got incredible gifts.” When you try to make your kids be something they can’t be, you miss the person they are!
One of the saddest things in the world is a ‘beautiful baby’ contest. Parents who should know better peer into prams trying to work out which baby is the most beautiful. (In fact, they all look like stewed prunes!)
What on earth are we doing – especially if they’re girls? They’ve a whole lifetime of people making superficial judgements according to their looks. It shouldn’t begin when they’re babies!
GRAPEVINE: Is it tougher for kids in today’s world than it was in ours?
ROB: One psychologist summed it up like this. “When I was brought up, in the late ’50s, you could picture yourself walking down this imaginary corridor. Either side were doors with labels: ‘excessive alcohol’ … ‘gambling’ … ‘promiscuous lifestyle’ … ‘drug abuse’. Occasionally you’d hear about a friend who’d gone behind one of those doors – but it was a big deal.”
He added, “When today’s young people walk down that corridor, all the doors are open, and their friends are in the rooms …”
Children today are exposed to sexually explicit material and invitations to take drugs. And this is at age seven, eight, nine – never mind what they’ll face in their teen years.
So yes, that’s a huge change.
GRAPEVINE: And parents feel less capable of handling pressures like this?
ROB: Absolutely. We run a course called ‘How to Drug-Proof Your Kids’ … knowing, of course, that you can’t drug-proof kids. Nevertheless, we aim to give parents the very best chance of helping their kids avoid the worst of the perils.
Most parents feel reasonably confident talking to their kids about the birds-and-the-bees. But it comes as a shock to find your 11- or 12-year-old using phrases and understanding aspects of sex that you didn’t grasp till you were in your 30s and 40s! (And for some parents, they’re still not sure what their kids are talking about …)
Motherhood, too, has changed massively. Many women now work outside the home … often in difficult manual jobs, or pressurised business situations. And so it’s much harder for them to keep these ‘two worlds’ going.
Yes, the ‘new man’ is meant to be alongside her helping – but there isn’t a great deal of evidence it’s really happening. Generally, men are helping more around the home than they used to, and there are many more men involved in childcare. But, for all that, the burden of raising children still rests mostly on mums – even full-time, working mums.
GRAPEVINE: How should at-home mothers respond when people ask, “Do you work?” …?
ROB: When my wife was a full-time mum-at-home and I was in a law practice, we went to one of these fancy ‘legal’ dinners. Dianne had just given birth to our second child; she was a little heavier than she’d have preferred and wasn’t feeling in great shape. She sat opposite this young, attractive, make-it-happen legal-eagle who asked, “What do you do, Dianne?” And she remembers answering, “Oh, I’m just a mum at home with small children!”
She’d never reply that way today. She’s had years of listening to mums and thinking about these issues. And she remembers meeting a mother-of-four who, when asked that question, gave this reply:
YES, I DO WORK!
“I’m involved in a programme of social development. At the moment I’m working with three age-groups. Firstly, toddlers – which involves a basic grasp of medicine and child psychology. Next, I’m working with teenagers – and I confess that programme isn’t going too well.”
“Thirdly, I work with a male aged 39 who’s exhibiting the classic symptoms of midlife crisis – which mainly involves psychiatric specialisation. Such a wide-ranging programme means you have to be a fantastic strategist and an unbelievable make-it-happen manager!”
She added, “I used to be an international fashion model, but I got bored!”
When we quote that in seminars, mothers clap and cheer and fall over laughing … because the myth of the ‘supermum’ is being exploded. We all suspected it was a myth, but now the supermums are coming out of the closet and admitting, “We never really did make it. Even though we wrote articles and pretended we were holding it all together, we never really were what we seemed. It was driving us crazy!”
GRAPEVINE: But some women do seem to do it successfully, and make a superb job of both career and home …
ROB: It depends what you mean by ‘do it’. And it depends at what level. We’ve had several ‘supermums’ in the UK who are meant to have done everything: they’ve run massive, international companies and jet-setted all over the world – and they’ve brought up ‘ideal’ families. But when you sit down and ask, “How did you manage it?” they say, “Well, the nanny does this, and the nurse does that, and the walkers do the other, and I do such-and-such …” They’ve had masses and masses of back-up.
But, even for them, they’ve realised that if you do one thing – you forfeit another. If you choose to be in South America clinching a big business deal, you can’t be in the suburbs tucking your kids into bed. If, as a mother, you give the cream of your time to your career, you’ll never be able to look back on the heart of your family’s life.
At other levels, many mums who work outside the home are doing absolutely fine. They’ve adjusted their lifestyles as it suits them. And I say: if you love your job, and you really need to do it for that deep inner satisfaction, then fine –that’s great. Or if your family truly depends on that extra money to put bread on the table – then do it.
But when I speak to mothers (and I’ve listened to thousands) they tell me, “This ‘be-liberated-enough-to-work’ idea wears thin when you’re just doing it to prove a point.”
I met a mum the other day who admitted, “One day I came home from work – physically shattered. My kids were out. I’d meant to make them a meal but I got home too late. I’d had a row with my teenager who’d stormed off. My marriage seemed to be dying. And I asked myself ‘Why am I doing this?’ And you know what? I was working to pay for our second holiday, and we were saving for an extension to the house.
“It suddenly hit me: I’d much rather be putting my time and energy into being with the kids, going to their school plays, laughing with them, crying with them – and putting more effort into our marriage. Those were far more important!”
Whether employed outside or full-time at home – a mum should make the choice that works best for her family. But she has to be realistic about the consequences.
Those childhood years are special. If your child is 10, then between now and when he’s 18 you only have 2920 days of childhood left. No amount of money or power or success can buy one more of those days …
GRAPEVINE: What do wives wish their husbands knew about mums?
ROB: I think they’d like help in three areas. The first is, support. It really drives mothers crazy when they’re doing the bulk of the child rearing (and most mothers do) and their husbands don’t support them. Particularly in the area of discipline. Mum says, “Go to your room!” – and dad says (in front of the child), “Oh, come on, don’t be so hard on him/her.”
Mum and dad need to work together as a team. Particularly during the teenage years, when many mums complain: “What’s the good of me telling him one thing – to be in by 10 – if you say, ‘No, he can stay out until 11 …’?”
Mums need to be backed-up by their husbands or partners. And any differences about how they approach child-rearing should be sorted out (away from the kids) so they can put up a united front.
The second thing many mothers would love (especially those who go out to work as well as being a mum) is more physical help. Help with the kids, help with tasks around the home.
And the third? Many mums would like their men to be more involved with the kids – in sports and hobbies and passing on of values and helping the child develop his or her full potential. Mums want dads to become more engaged in these areas – not taking it for granted that she’ll do it all.
GRAPEVINE: Which brings us to the problems faced by single mums doing it all on their own. How do they get the support of a good man?
ROB: Well, as soon as you talk about another man on the scene all the alarm bells begin ringing, and all the difficulties and risks spring to mind. But a single mum shouldn’t allow that to stop her trying to find a good male role model for her kids.
The toughest thing for solo mums is that sense of ‘aloneness’. It often hits during a time when she’s hurting badly anyway – a relationship has broken down, a partner has died or gone, she may feel rejected.
She’s trying to bring up this child, and she’s totally alone – physically, psychologically, emotionally. When things go wrong, she doesn’t know if it’s because she’s a single parent mum – if she’s doing something wrong – or whether it’s just par for the course.
I believe, with all my heart, that it’s best for children to have both parents if possible – and I’ve never yet met a single parent who didn’t believe this deep down.
But still, single mums can do a great job of child rearing.
As our children move into their teenage years, we have to find others, outside of their immediate family, who can relate to them. And that goes for all families, not just those of solo parents. Let’s look for good support wherever it’s available.
I’ve been really grateful for other adults (in my case they’ve often been sporting colleagues or youth leaders) who’ve helped my kids and influenced them. As the kids have grown, I’ve realised that they’re sharing things with these ‘outsiders’ that they haven’t shared with me or their mum. But that’s okay – that’s normal. Perhaps they’ll talk to me about it when they’re ready.
So I encourage parents (single parents and single mums especially) to make those contacts – to help widen their kids’ horizons. Yes, you do have to be careful. But it’s still vital.
GRAPEVINE: In a two-parent family, how important is the relationship between the mum and dad?
ROB: Very important. I forget who said it, but it’s true, “The greatest thing you can do for your child is love their mother!”
THE SCARY THING …
… is not that kids don’t listen to us. It’s the fact that they’re listening all the time. They’re picking up on how we treat each other: Do we say sorry? Do we forgive? Are we abusive? Do we hit? Do we, maybe, pray together? How do we handle money?
That’s what’s scary: our kids are picking up our values – left, right and centre!
We sometimes get the chance to ask people about things that have influenced their relationships. And time and again they’ll mention how their mother and father acted. That’s sometimes negative – but very often, it’s positive. They’ll say, “We didn’t have a lot of money as a family, but Mum and Dad were always laughing – always doing silly things together.”
So it’s that relationship and the “things we did” they remember.
And it’s the little things you do – not the expensive gifts – that your kids will remember, too: the time you sat up until 3am telling stories … the night you pitched a tent in the backyard and everyone was scared …
If kids see mum and dad doing things together, backing each other up, acting as a team, supporting each other – they’ll feel secure and loved. It’s vital.
GRAPEVINE: What on earth can ‘expectant parents’ do to help get them ready for the demanding job that lies ahead?
ROB: It needs some planning, because it won’t just happen. Thanks to the breakdown in extended families, people aren’t as prepared today – we often aren’t ready for all the parenting issues about to hit us.
A friend of mine rang me last night. His daughter-in-law and son have just had their first child. He was blown away. On Wednesday they were just the two … and now, Thursday, here’s this new human being in his mother’s arms, totally dependent on his parents. And she’s now a mother! She’s got to feed him, change him, cope with him crying in the night, and wonder what all his little noises mean.
We encourage people to come to seminars on parenthood before they have kids … to attend seminars about the teen years when their kids are still six, seven, eight … to do a course on marriage before they get married. We urge them to stay ahead of the game.
One of the frustrations about being a parent is: just when you start to get the hang of it – you’re redundant! So it makes sense to plug-in to the wisdom that earlier generations have amassed.
That’s why I love what I do so much! Not only can I pass on the little answers I’ve stumbled across – but I can also share ideas that thousands of parents have learned over many, many generations.
If I drone on about the ‘Top Ten Tips’ for excellent parenting, people get so bored they can hardly keep their eyes open. But when I talk about where I’ve screwed up, or pass on a tip that has really worked for lots of mums, wow – you see an audience come to life!
JOIN THE CLUB:
Most mums don’t need clever answers. They need to know they’re not alone … that what they’re going through with their kids has happened to millions before them, and is happening to millions of others now.
They need to know that sharing with friends, reading good books, or joining with a group can help them get through and find answers that work.
They need to take on board one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever been given for parents: “Don’t take all the credit … and don’t take all the blame!”
And they need to know that their kids will probably turn out … just fine!