The Questions Mothers Must Ask

1. How do I measure my success as a parent?
Of the more than 17,000 parents surveyed for my book, a whopping 70 percent confessed that they have no clue about what goals they should set for their kids. Caught up in the whirlwind pace of modern life, these parents were too busy to bother with a plan of action, and they were making excuses for not doing the most important job they'll ever have. In addition, 25 percent said that their primary goal was to create a teen who would stay out of trouble, and the remaining 5 percent said they had goals, but only vague ones like wanting their children to be happy. Reading the results of that survey made me want to drive door-to-door across America, shake every one of those parents by the shoulder, and shout, "Wake up!"

First you need to ask yourself, "What is really important to me? How do I measure my success as a woman and a mother and a person?" These are very challenging questions, but I believe we all have the ability to answer every question that we will face, if we stop and think it through.

I've got two sons, a 17- and a 24-year-old. If you asked me how I measure my success as a parent, I'd start with the predictable stuff: I want them to be happy, successful, nurturing, caring, good people. But I add to that my personal goal: to parent them in a way that allows them to discover their unique and authentic selves. I don't want to make them clones of me but to help them develop their individual gifts and talents, to explore their passions. What gives you peace as a parent is when you can say to yourself, I have nurtured my daughter's uniqueness. I have provided my son with a canvas on which to express his creativity. That's a great thing to be able to say.

2. What's the plan?
Once you've meditated on what is important to you, you need to make a plan. This will ensure consistency, which is crucial to maintaining authority over your children, and it will help you be a confident mother.

How do you make a plan? Start with this: "Sex, drugs and alcohol will not be a part of my child's life." Now decide how you want to educate him or her about this and enforce it. (This should include holding yourself to the same standard. Your kids are watching you and learning from everything you do.) Define ways in which you will create a nurturing and accepting family system, and provide your kids with a safe environment that encourages them to pursue activities that help them discover their interests (whether you enjoy them or not). Promote a rhythm of life by establishing rules—children need rules! Sit down with your partner and decide what the rules will be and how they will be enforced. Create meaningful family rituals and traditions, even if it just means eating dinner together as a family every night. This will generate togetherness, communication, continuity and bonding—all crucial to a child's development.

3. What did my parents teach me about parenting?
We are all products of our history and learning. There's a parental legacy that has been passed on to you, based on how your mother mothered you and your father fathered you. You bring this cumulative experience to the role of motherhood.

Your parents raised you a certain way, and as a parent you are likely affected by those experiences in one of two ways. The most common reaction is to do exactly what your parents did. If they were yellers and screamers, odds are that you are as well. If they were cold, withdrawn, and totally absorbed in other aspects of their own lives, neglecting yours, then you probably behave in the same fashion. If they lived vicariously through you as a "second time around" for them, you probably now live the legacy by standing on the sidelines at every Little League game, screaming like a loudmouth—can you tell that really bugs me?—or being an obnoxious stage mom at the local yokel beauty contest. Not good! But if your parents made sure to come in together to tuck you in and kiss you every night at bedtime, and you do the same with your children, you've learned something great there.

The second common response is to rebel against the experience and behave in a radically different way. In reaction to being raised with yelling and screaming, you may be the nicest, sweetest, and most lenient parent you could ever imagine. Sounds perfect, but nothing extreme ever is. This opposite reaction may cause you to be overindulgent and spoil your children, a behavior that often leads to poor impulse control in kids, misbehavior, and even low academic performance.

Good or bad, right or wrong, your family in general and your parents in particular wrote on the blank slate that is you. It's impossible to overemphasize the power of this legacy. And only when you put your own childhood under the microscope can you start to make some conscious, here-and-now choices about how you raise your children, rather than being mindlessly controlled by your past.

4. Am I at peace with myself?
You don't stop being a woman when you start being a mother. Motherhood doesn't define you. It is one of many roles that you assume. You have to bring all your own gifts, traits, and characteristics to the role. Your actions must be consistent with what you think, hope, believe, and value as a person. You cannot have peace in your mind and heart unless you are being authentic.

In any relationship, you either contribute or contaminate 24 hours a day. You contribute when you feel empowered and peaceful; you're toxic when your own journey is tortured and troubled. Maybe you're bitter in your life, and you think, "I won't be that way with my children." But if you don't have faith, compassion and empathy, you can't fake it for the children. And you certainly can't teach it to them. Your personal walk through this world is the most powerful determinant of what you will express and give away as a mother. A mother's lifestyle, personality, and principles often set the tone for the household. If the mother is stressed and chaotic, the family will be chaotic. If a mother feels peace and harmony, that becomes manifest in the family.

Getting to the place where you are a healthy and happy woman starts with putting yourself at the top of your own priority list. Women have been socialized for centuries to believe that they are here to serve and that self-focus is a hedonistic exercise tantamount to neglect for family. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are like bank accounts: If all you ever do is make withdrawals, you're going to wind up with a zero balance or worse. You simply cannot give away what you don't have.

If you truly love your children, and I know you do, then you will take care of their mother. This begins with a shift of attitude in which you say, "I must nurture my spirit and my body." To do that, you have to make appointments with yourself, really commit some time to filling yourself up. This means different things to different people. If for you it means meditation, then you need to set aside time for it. If what fills you up is exercise, expanding your mind through a book, enjoying music, or using your creative talents in the arts, then those are the areas where you need to make regular appointments with yourself.

I have had many mothers tell me that what fills them up is taking care of and nurturing their children. I get that; I understand. But there is no job, no mission that is fun, rewarding and gratifying all the time. If you don't feel the need to change some of what you're doing, then you may need to just change how you're doing it. The bottom line is that you have needs, and those needs cannot be pushed to the bottom of the priority list. It boils down to parenting without guilt, being a wife without guilt, and recognizing that the world has enough martyrs and needs more vibrant, alive, guilt-free women giving themselves permission to be more than just a mother. And I say "just a mother," fully acknowledging that the way you raise your children, the role that you occupy in their lives, is your highest and most noble calling.

5. Can I let go of the guilt and do better?
You may think your family life and parenting skills have failed. You may feel like you've tried everything. You may feel tired, deflated, and defeated, and you blame yourself for how your kids are turning out—whether your 2-year-old throws temper tantrums or your teenager keeps getting in trouble with the law. Perhaps you've realized some mistakes you've made. But cut yourself some slack here. Self-blame can create a paralyzing guilt, and I have no time for you to be kicking yourself. I need you fully in the process we are about here. My survey revealed that a significant number of mothers and fathers feel guilt and blame themselves for their poor parenting practices. But there is a huge and important difference between blame and responsibility. You need to understand the distinction and to realize that it's never too late to take back control.

To deserve blame, you must have intended your actions or recklessly disregarded the possible consequences. By contrast, responsibility simply means that you were involved and took actions that generated consequences, but there was no malicious intent. I'm not just playing semantics to make you feel better. This is an important point.

Poet Maya Angelou's comment on past behaviors says it best: "You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better." Whatever you have done in the past to raise your family, you did what you knew how to do. You are responsible for it. But from here on out, you will know better and you will do better—a whole lot better. You can start now by making intelligent and informed choices about how you lead your family and parent your children. If the plan isn't working, change the plan. Find new ways to deal with your children so that they can respond in new ways. Step up, start running things again, set clear objectives, and implement them with a strong, unified front and a commitment to consistency. Redefine your family dynamics, and focus on the priorities that you know in your mind and heart are required to meet your goals of family success. By opening yourself to the idea of changing and improving, you are making a difference this very day. You may not have all the tools you need yet. But you do have the most important element for success there could possibly be: You have the unconditional love for your children that only a parent can have.