“HANDS-ON” PARENTING? NOT! – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had an unusual childhood. Growing up, my parents were upper middle class professionals in New York City. Things were probably done differently in that milieu than elsewhere in the country at the time. In those days, household help was relatively cheap and readily available. So in my home when I was young, there was always someone around to take care of me, other than my mother.

My mother worked part-time as a psychologist, from an office in our apartment. She spent time with me and played with me often, but she never did the basics, like feed me, bathe me, dress me, get me off to school in the morning, etc. She did usually sit with me before I went to bed.

Me and my parents when I’m about two

I was a fearful, anxious child and didn’t sleep through the night till I was maybe six or seven. I was also a bed wetter. I believe it would have been helpful to me, psychologically, if my mom had been the one to comfort me in the middle of the night. But she needed her sleep. So the Nanny was the one who got the nocturnal duty.

When I was two, I began acting strangely ingratiating to my Nanny, a German woman named Miss Fleggenheimer, or Fleggy. The housekeeper, named Ethie, who loved me, got suspicious and decided to spy on Fleggy. It turned out that when I cried at night, Fleggy would threaten to lock me in the closet if I didn’t shut up. My mother eventually fired Fleggy but still didn’t take over the night shift with me. She hired someone else to do it. (Note that it was Ethie who figured out something was wrong, not my mother).

In addition, neither of my parents did child oriented things with me. When I was with them I did whatever they were doing. Often that meant going to art galleries and antique shops or grown up museums. I got a wonderful cultural education but I didn’t have much of a childhood with my parents.

Me and my grandparents — I was about two

The childhood activities, like going to the playground, were delegated to the hired help or to my Grandfather. My grandfather took me to the park, the zoo, the carousel and other fun places. I always had a fantastic time with him. Every Sunday during the school year, he took me to the Museum of Natural History, which I still love.

When I had kids, I was a totally hands on parent. My mom could never understand why I ‘wasted my time’ doing all the ‘menial tasks’ for my kids, like dressing them, feeding them, bathing them, and driving them wherever they had to go. She also thought I was crazy getting up three times a night for two years with my first-born.

Her grand-parenting style was the same as her parenting style. She liked to ‘visit’ with the kids. She made it clear that she would never ‘babysit’. When they got older, she would take them overnight. But when my husband and I went away, we would have to fly my mother-in-law up from Florida to take care of the kids. And my mother lived two blocks away! She was wonderful with the children. But only on her terms.

The sad part for me was that I adored my mother. I think things would have been easier for me, emotionally, if she had been a more hands-on parent. She was a free spirit who loved to laugh. She would find humor in everything. She had great energy and enthusiasm and words like ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’ described her perfectly. She could be chic and elegant one minute and a total pixie the next.

Mom, me and my grandparents when I was about 6

She would sit on the floor with me and play dolls, games, jacks, mad libs, whatever I was into. She was always interested in everything I did and she knew everything about all my friends and teachers. I could talk to her about anything.

To me, the sun rose and set on her. She adored me too and told me often. She made me feel special, loved and oh so lucky! All my friends were crazy about her. I was the envy of the class because I had such a beautiful, cool and fun mom.

Me at about seven or eight on a trip with my grandparents

When I got older, from about fourth grade on, my mom had to spend more time with me because I developed school anxieties and learning problems. Through high school, she had to help me write papers and study because of my severe anxiety issues. She put in the time when she had to and I’m grateful to her for that. My Dad used to complain that on school nights, he never saw her!

So I felt loved by my mother. But looking back on my childhood, I didn’t get to share the kinds of day-to-day experiences early on with my parents that most kids do. When I became a parent, I realized how important those everyday, mundane moments are with young children.

I did it differently. I wish my parents had done it differently too.

11 thoughts on ““HANDS-ON” PARENTING? NOT! – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I’m fascinated by this series, which has a lot of parallels and similarities in my own life. My mom loved to play with us and to teach us (or have a hand in teaching us). One of my most unpleasant memories was visiting my dad’s twin sister, who had a nanny for her children. I came down with a cold, and the nanny took care of me — I wasn’t allowed to see my mom and have her care for me at all! My grandparents were immigrants from Scotland, and my mom from England — I often felt that exacerbated the generation gap!

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    • I wanted my mother to take care of me all the time too, not the nanny. Even when you’re used to having hired help take care of you, you still yearn to be with your parents. When I went to friend’s houses, I noticed that other mothers fixed dinner for the kids and got them ready for school, etc. My mom didn’t do those things and I always felt that absence.

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    • I don’t know how unique New York was. I think that professional people everywhere had similar lifestyles, at least in the big cities. At least the values and goals were at least similar. And I think the availability of hired household help was also common in upper middle class families in cities all over the country.

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  2. I find your history has some similarities to mine as well. I don’t remember my mother ever playing with me. She had a hard row to hoe with my father. He was very demanding of her attention. Also, my father had a real hate on for my brother. Perhaps he felt that my mother’s attention would be taken away from him.
    I don’t wish things were different, for whatever reason, they both contributed to my life to make me who I am today. I can live with that.

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    • It’s a pity that your brother was treated differently than you by your father. Many fathers are jealous of the attention their wives pay to the kids. I was often fighting with my dad for my mom’s attention. He would often come into my room at night complaining that mom had spent too much time with me already and wanting her to leave me and spend time with him. When I had my first child, my husband told me that he didn’t feel that he was number one with me anymore. And that’s when he started cheating on me.

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  3. My mother wasn’t a playmate. She was a companion and as I got older, a very good friend, but I don’t think she really got that “mother thing” put together. She liked us well enough, but there was usually “help” in the house and my mother was busy painting or studying painting. I think she found her housewife life very frustrating. She was nice enough and she was around, but she was no kind of playmate. She was, fortunately, a very good storyteller. And that made up for a lot.

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    • Marilyn, your mother was an artist, which puts her in a whole different category from other mothers. Creative people, including my father who was intellectually creative and wrote extensively, can be in their own worlds. The everyday life of children can be outside of their comfprt zones. But your mom sounds like she was over all a positive in your life, which is excellent. Many people don’t have that at all.

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