Mother knows best


Elana Benjamin

if we devalue the wisdom of those who gave birth to us then we create a precedent for our own children to similarly ...

if we devalue the wisdom of those who gave birth to us then we create a precedent for our own children to similarly ignore us. Photo: Stocksy

For her 2014 New York Times bestseller, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, author Jennifer Senior asked mothers whom they went to for parenting advice. They named friends, websites and books. But not one nominated their own mother.

I'm in the opposite situation: my husband, two kids and I are currently living with my parents while our house is being renovated. We've been at Mum and Dad's for two months now, with four more to go. That's half a year of round-the-clock parenting advice - often unsolicited - from a woman who last gave birth close to 40 years ago.

My mother is a gentle but fastidious woman; the firstborn of an iron-fisted father. Although my husband considers me strict with our children, aged 10 and six, my mum views my parenting style as positively laissez-faire.

"The children shouldn't be allowed to read during mealtimes," she declares, after watching me try to get my daughter's attention during dinner. "You shouldn't have let him stay home - he wasn't even sick," she chastised, when


I gave my son a day off school because he was tired. "Can't you bribe her to eat more vegetables?" she asks, as if I'd never tried to convince my daughter that "greens" encompass more than just cucumbers.

Mum's advice isn't limited to my questionable mothering skills. It also extends to my unkempt appearance ("When are you going to get rid of those ripped jeans and buy a pair without holes in the knees?") and, most importantly, my sub-par approach to housekeeping ("You don't need to preheat the oven for so long! It's just wasting energy.")

Given that I've been running my own household for years, my mother's constant commentary is exasperating. But no matter how infuriated I become, I've learnt there's little point arguing. Mum will never agree, for example, that it's acceptable for tea towels to be washed in the same load as socks and underwear, or that my son can leave the house without first brushing his hair.

In part, my mother and I are the products of different eras and different countries. Mum was born and raised in 1950s and '60s Mumbai - even then an overcrowded, poverty-stricken city. Her family was middle-class Jewish but had few material possessions; as a child, her only toys were a doll and a tea set. In this world, nothing was wasted. Even unwanted books were sold to the channa-wallah (seller of dried, roasted peas), who used their pages to make the paper cones in which he served his wares.

Against this Indian backdrop, Mum's annoyance with my lax, land-of-plenty approach to heating the oven makes sense. It also explains that while my torn jeans may be eminently fashionable, to her they're an undesirable sign of poverty. But even when my mum's rules seem completely irrational, I'm careful not to ridicule her.

I'm conscious that my parents have welcomed us into their home rent-free, and I'm grateful for their hospitality and generosity. But there's another motivation: my children are watching and absorbing every adult interaction under their grandparents' roof.

My son and daughter are uploading the countless exchanges between my mother and me to the YouTube of their memories, where the same scenes will eventually be re-enacted in our own home: I'll be in The Mother role and it will be my offspring challenging my crazy regulations.

So I want my children to see that as much as I disagree with my mum, I have enormous respect for her. The truth is, she is my go-to person on a range of issues, from bookkeeping to knitting; stain-removal to sourcing spices. She's my Parenting Helpdesk; the incisive voice of accumulated wisdom and years of experience.

So when I recently lost my temper with my daughter, I checked in with Mum, who'd overheard the whole episode. "Do you think I was too hard on her?" I asked. Mum's answer, albeit delivered kindly, was an unequivocal yes. Thankful for my mother's honesty, I apologised to my 10-year-old, silently resolving to treat her more gently.

As a woman who has raised two children of her own, Mum also has a big-picture approach that I'm missing. My mother was the one who provided the impetus for us to start renovating our cramped two-bedroom semi. "The children can't share a room for much longer," she kept prodding. "They need their own space."

My mother could see what my husband and I - caught up in the day-to-day of our warp-speed lives - could not: that building a second storey is a lengthy process, and that our daughter's needs were rapidly changing. Mum was right - by the time we move back home, our son will be seven and our daughter almost 11; desperately in need of separate sleeping quarters.

In a culture that promotes individualism, outsourcing, and "expert" parenting advice, it's easy to dismiss our mothers' views as outdated, irrelevant and absurd. But if we devalue the wisdom of those who gave birth to us - if, as Jennifer Senior found, we seek the answers to our parenting questions only among our friends, websites and books - then we create a precedent for our own children to similarly ignore us when they become mums and dads. We also risk losing the priceless knowledge gathered in the trenches of motherhood by those who have battled before us - and won the war.