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.
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.
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.
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.
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.