I often struggle to remember where I put my sunglasses or my phone, but when it comes to details from my childhood, I have an exceptional memory. I have no recollection of seeing my mom awake before eight in the morning.
My mom always made sure we dressed appropriately for the weather, and that our permissions slips were signed. We knew we’d eat a balanced meal, (a protein, a starch, a vegetable, and a salad) at six o’clock every night, and we knew we were loved. We also knew not to expect to see our mom in the morning, save for a groggy, “have a good day” and the kiss we’d dash up to her bed for before running out the door.
She wasn’t sick, lazy, or addicted to anything. She was just a night owl. And, like the fact that my dad didn’t own pajamas, or the fact that we ordered Chinese food on Sunday nights, I assumed this was normal until I grew up and realized it wasn’t.
Now that I’m a parent, I understand that while my mom’s strategy was unconventional, it was genius. Here’s why:
1 | We were responsible
Because my mom never woke me up, I had to figure out when to wake up in order to get to school on time, and be responsible for actually getting up at that time. Since I can remember, I’ve had a penchant for determining the last possible moment I could wake up and still be on time, and set my alarm at least 30 minutes earlier, to allow plenty of time to hit snooze. If I rushed to shove breakfast in my mouth, I had only myself to blame. It was up to me to remember my lunch, my homework, and a hat. We didn’t have our mom (or Alexa) to tell us what the weather was going to be. Instead, we had the weather line memorized.
2 | We avoided power struggles
If I didn’t like the healthy cereal my mom had bought a dozen boxes of on sale with double coupons, that was my problem and mine alone. Because my mom was still peacefully slumbering, there was no point in whining about the gross cereal or refusing to eat it. For her part, my mother couldn’t disapprove of my outfit, jacket, or anything else if she wasn’t awake to see them. I was a sassy (read: bitchy) teenager and, like my mom, have never been a morning person. Had we both been awake and in the same room in the mornings before I left for high school, I suspect the crime scene investigation team would have been at our house before the bell rang for first period most mornings.
3 | My brother and I figured out how to get along
My brother is two years older than me and, like normal siblings, we alternated between being partners in crime and mortal enemies. While leaving us to our own devices could have made us go all Lord-of-the-Flies, it didn’t. In the winter, Adam set our jackets on the radiator, taking care to arrange them so the zippers wouldn’t burn our fingers before braving the New England winter en route to the bus stop. Being taller and less likely to make a mess, he always popped our waffles in the toaster and poured our milk. I honestly don’t know what I contributed, other than blithely letting him be in charge. I do know we had a system that worked.
4 | I understood my mom had priorities other than me
From a young age, I got that my mom was up late doing important stuff, which was why she had to sleep in. My little sister was born when I was in the first grade. I remember rousing in the middle of the night and hearing my mom’s voice wafting from the nursery as she rocked and sung her back to sleep. Later, it was her hobbies that my mom attended to in the wee hours. She caned chairs, read, sewed, and did calligraphy. I don’t know that we ever discussed it, but I intuited that my mom took those late night hours for her own interests – interests that had zero to do with me or my siblings.
5 | I had a role model who didn’t care what other people were doing
My mom didn’t have Facebook and Pinterest but she must have known everyone else’s mom was up in time for breakfast. She clearly did not care. Her ability to do what worked for her despite the fact that no one else (at least no sober, sane, stable stay-at-home-mom I’ve ever heard of) did it her way, is impressive.
One of the most important lessons I could teach my children is to be themselves. Whether that means living in a commune, making art, keeping strange hours, or whatever else they need to do to nourish their souls, it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re true to themselves, not slaves to other peoples’ expectations.
My mom’s schedule was indeed bizarre, but the more time I spend on this planet, the more I am convinced there is no such thing as normal. I know my mom wasn’t trying to do anything except save her sanity and get some much-needed sleep – it was the 80’s and 90’s and the widespread use of “parent” as a verb was nascent. Nevertheless, by doing what she needed to do for herself, my mother taught me some valuable lessons.