What My Mother Did To Me That I Will Not Do To My Son

Kate McGuinness’ mother smothered her growing up, so when Kate became a mother, she refused to parent her son similarly. But without those scarring experiences, she wouldn’t be as good a parent as she is today, so for that, she’s thankful.

Like many new parents, I swore I would not raise my child the way my mother raised me. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where I’ve succeeded, where I’ve failed, and better understand her choices.

Primary on the laundry list of intended differences was allowing my son to separate in age-appropriate increments. I had experienced my mother as smothering—demanding my presence, my interest in her interests, my adoption of her opinions. As a teen, I decided the word “smother” was derived from the word “mother” despite contrary etymological evidence.

Going to college often serves as a transition point in parent-child relationships. But I attended a women’s college not quite far enough away from home. I still felt suffocated. After my freshman year, in a desperate, rebellious attempt at individuation, I married a much older man she deeply disliked.

That decision had a much more profound impact than I had anticipated. The prudish mores of the time resulted in my expulsion from the college, despite being on the dean’s list. It simply did not allow married students. I enrolled at a distant university, further loosening her grasp.

Despite this history, I invited my mother to move in with me 20 years later. I wanted to help her escape my alcoholic older brother and I wanted to help him escape her enabling. I loved them both and moving her across the country seemed to be the only way to help. The decision was made long before my son’s birth, but having her with us in his early years was revealing.  

I gained an understanding of my mother’s desire to keep me close the moment my son was born. The love I feel for him is profound and unmatched in my experience.

However, my mother and I didn’t share the same definition of love. Our differences gradually became apparent during my son’s early years when she lived with us. In my mind, love means wanting what’s best for the other person. With children, that includes making rules and enforcing them consistently.

My mother claimed she loved my son “too much” to have rules. I suggested that the absence of rules had contributed to my brother’s alcoholism. Although I had grown up in a rule-free environment as well, the effects were less harmful—the result, perhaps, of his cautionary example.

My disagreement with my mother over the appropriate manifestation of parental love eventually led me to ask her to leave my home. It was a wrenching decision, but I prioritized my son’s well-being. In retrospect, I only wish I had done it sooner.

I separated my mother from my son, but did I allow him to separate from me? He’s now 23 so I’ve had many opportunities to test my resolve. I can proudly report that he went to sleep-away summer camp before he was 10, left for boarding school when he was 15, and attended college half-way across the country. He studied abroad during his junior year and lived in Europe after graduation. Unlike my mother, I called and wrote infrequently.

I can claim those objective benchmarks. But I can’t claim all the credit. My son gets a large share. He has a fiercely independent spirit and a stubborn streak wider and deeper than mine. Some of his actions that enhanced his separation haven’t been directed at me per se. For example, he dislikes talking on the phone to anyone, peers included. And his enrollment in a boarding school hours from home was triggered by academic problems. However, a closer look would suggest poor grades were a way of rebelling against intellectual lawyer parents.  

He would tell you that I haven’t been fully faithful to my resolve to let him go. I sometimes do things that make him uncomfortable. I gave up obsessively photographing him years ago, but that all-powerful love still sometimes overrides my resolve: I offer unwanted health advice, my eyes fill up when he leaves for a long trip and, I suspect, I say “I love you” too often for his comfort.

But without the scars and lingering resentment of being smothered by my mother, I would have crowded him more—much more. I’m grateful for the memories that have allowed me to be a better parent. That is, after all, the work of my lifetime.

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon.com. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.

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