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What Makes A Mom?

LA Parent "What Makes a Mom"“Mother.”

It used to be this wasn’t a word I paid much attention to. I mean, I have a great mother and I love her and I even talk to her once in awhile. But as far as myself as a mother? Like, becoming one? I had absolutely no plans to go there and was fine with that.

And then two years ago I went and married myself into motherhood. Well, stepmotherhood. But I very quickly learned that the “step” in my new title in no way qualified or diminished the “mom” part of it. The idea of my stepdaughter as a fun weekend rental, with someone else handling the maintenance, fell by the wayside right off the bat. Somehow, more often than not I became the designated parent.

But wait! I’ve had no training! I’ve done no reading! I’m not biologically or emotionally ready! This wasn’t even something I particularly wanted! How am I supposed to handle mom-dom?

Thank goodness, pretty soon I also found out that I wasn’t alone in my search for answers. Here was me, voted least-likely to set foot in a Chuck-e-Cheese, in the same boat as stay-at-home-soccer moms, single moms, career moms, foster moms, adoptive moms, and even grandmothers or other loving people—who may or may not be female—who act as moms.

We were all trying to figure it out: Just what is a mother, anyway?

“That comes out of one’s sense of self, ideally,” says Dr. Carol Blake, Clinical Program Supervisor of the Early Childhood Center, Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “A mother’s many things, and number one you want to assess your own circumstances, your own blank slate. There are many resources applicable for you at whatever stage you’re entering upon as a mom,” she continues. “But the biggest piece of information is being able to identify what’s inside of you.”

Not an easy job, when every one of us gets clues about what a mother is, and what a mother does, just about everywhere. Our culture is positively steeped in maternal images, whether it’s the Madonna or Donna Reed, “Mommie Dearest” or the influx of free-wheeling moms currently in cinematic vogue. Self-help books and shrinks and hot-lines and TV talk shows give us plenty of “how-tos” and “don’t-dos.” There are even websites for “Mothers Who Think.” (What?! We’re supposed to think, too?)

“There’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ motherhood experience,” says Ann Douglas, a parenting authority whose books include “The Unofficial Guide to Childcare” and “The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby.” Even when it comes to authorities, “No one has all the answers,” she admits. “You have to be prepared to make mistakes because they’re inevitable! Anytime you’re new to the motherhood arena—for whatever reason—you’re bound to experience a bit of insecurity.”

“I did quite a bit of research on adoption,” says my friend Dayle, a savvy single mom whose daughter came to her from an orphanage in Russia six years ago. But nothing prepared her for the reality of getting off the plane and setting up house with a two year old from another world entirely. “She wasn’t very happy at first,” says Dayle of her daughter. “And of course I thought that it was my fault, I was a bad mother.” Following the experts’ advice, Dayle had kept her daughter at home to facilitate mother-daughter bonding. “But what I didn’t take into consideration that she was used to being around kids, who were essentially her brothers and sisters. I must have seemed like a punishment to her!” And the moment she put her daughter into a pre-school setting, their relationship started working.

So do the research, but also take Ann Douglas’ advice: “Don’t underestimate the power of your own maternal instincts! You’d be crazy to try to read every book on parenting. What’s more,” she continues, “The experts have such conflicting advice that you’d end up being totally paralyzed with fear about messing your kid up for life after reading an armful of the latest tomes.”

“I think everyone feels off-kilter when they’re a new mom,” says Dr. Andrea Gorman, a developmental psychologist who is also the mother of a seven-month-old. “It’s very easy to feel like you know nothing. One of the biggest lessons for me was to read everything carefully, but then breathe. Think about it. It’s not enough to say, `Dr. So and So says the following.’ As a mom I forgot all that,” she laughs.

My friend Sarah, whose two-year old son is about to become a big brother, tells me that she’s got more confidence as a mother the second time around. But anytime she starts to feel cocky, she’s hit with those haunting questions: Do other moms let their kids stay up until 11 o’clock at night? And has anyone else ever lost a child in Costco? “I feel bad needing that validation,” she admits. “But there are times when it’s comforting to know that not everyone, not everyone’s kid, is perfect.”

Does that mean that moms can incorporate a little slack into their job description?

“Absolutely,” says Anne Stoline, a specialist in perinatal psychiatry and former Director of Women’s Mental Health at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital. “The transition to motherhood is highly underrated. We’re working against a very powerful myth here!”

Right. And in the world we live in, the nurturing mother goddess has somehow morphed into superwoman, as well. When’s the last time you heard a man complaining about having to juggle family and a career?

“One of the first things in finding the balance,” says Stoline, “is finding yourself—keeping your mind open.” In her own case, Stoline found that she needed to leave her job and set up a home-based Women’s Center so that she could work near her children, now four and two. But she stresses that although this move was right for her, it wouldn’t be right for every mother.

“The biggest guidepost within a person is her intuition,” she says. And then relates the story of a mother who realized that she didn’t do the baby thing very well. As a matter of fact, Stoline says, “She hated it! So she found good daycare for her daughter and said to me, ‘I will be better when she’s more of a toddler.’ And she was—she was just fine.”

It’s only fairly recently that there’s been talk of “styles” of parenting, and being a “good enough” parent. Which gives each mother license, but also responsibility when it comes to making her own choices. We’ve got to take into consideration our strengths and weaknesses, our temperament and our child’s temperament, our support system including our current family situation. And don’t forget to factor in the family we came from. Because like it or not, when it comes to mothering, the biggest influence is how we were raised.

“We all have a tendency to parent the way we were parented,” says Sal Severe, author of “How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too!” “You started to learn about parenting when you were pint-sized, from your mom or dad or any care giver,” he continues. “That’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just the way it is.”

Severe deals frequently with this issue in his popular workshops; it’s also a favorite topic during his parenting chats on America Online and Parent Soup. So what do we do with those “I’m turning into my own mother!” moments?

“Increase your awareness,” Severe counsels. “If it’s something your parents did that you liked, go ahead and do it!” The the next step—throwing out the negative stuff—gets a little trickier, he admits. “Because it’s deeply programmed, almost impulsive.” But with realistic expectations, work and commitment, it is possible to benefit from lessons mom didn’t even know she was teaching us.

“All children are not able to be mothered by the woman who gave birth to them,” says Patricia Ryan, Professor Emeritus in Sociology at Eastern Michigan University. She’s the author of publications specializing on the issues of foster care and adoption, and points out that there are different challenges facing those of us with another mom in the picture. “Maybe you’d like to be the ‘best’ mom,” she says. “There’s a horrible mom, and you want to say ‘Give her up and let me become your mom!’”

But first look at the reality of the kid, Ryan advises. “Whatever mistakes the parent made, no matter how horrendous, that mom has done something to help them survive.” Your job is not only to step in and do what’s not being done, she says, but also “to help that child feel comfortable yearning for what might be.” You’re never going to take the “real” mom’s place, and you can’t take away the child’s fantasy about their mother, however tempting that prospect might be.

When she went about re-uniting with the grown son she gave up for adoption, my friend Debbi found fantasy and reality colliding head on. “I had to assuage remnants of guilt from the past, even though there was no doubt in my mind that I had done the right thing at 16,” she says. “I knew in some way that I had been preparing for the day when I would find him, and that I’d never be whole without knowing him again.” But when it came time to meeting this 28-year-old stranger, “I had no idea of the role he wanted me to play in his life, and felt rather ill-equipped—it’s just an unfamiliar feeling to be a mother.” Now that they’ve known each other a year, Debbi and her son are working together, to figure out just how to define their relationship.

No, when it comes to the motherhood thing I guess there are no easy answers. But here’s a universal definition I can live with, from veteran mom Patricia Ryan: “A mother is one who loves unreservedly, does her best to meet the needs of her kids in a changing society, and tries to preserve her own sanity,” she says. “And few of us make it!”

United Parenting Publication
Niche Magazine Mano en Mano

Mano en Mano—Ray Leier and Jan Peters of LA’s del Mano Gallery (Click Here)

Niche Magazine, Spring 2007

The Single Parents’ Summer Survival Guide:
How to Handle the Emotional, Financial and Logistical Challenges

Single Parents SummerOh, those lazy, hazy days of summer. Just picture it: kicking back around the pool, planning grand vacations and stocking up for big old barbeques with the kids.

Then you wake up. Sweating.

For most of us parent types, here’s the reality of summer: What are we going to do with our out-of-school, out-of-sorts children who are suddenly at home and in our hair, with their own picture of a perfect summer. (Hint: it looks something like The Magic Kingdom, 24-7.) And the hard, cold (except when the air-conditioning breaks) slap in the face of summer months can be especially tough on single parents. Because they’re the ones shouldering the economic — and emotional — burden all by themselves. “I grew up with a stay-at-home mom, so summer wssummer2as one long vacation,” says Susan, a single mom. “But in our house it’s not like that. The kids are warehoused and mom works right through.” Raising her two sons, 9 and 11, without financial support from her ex-husband, Susan especially feels the pinch during summer. “Child care expenses go up through the roof!”

Even the money you don’t shell out has its price, she says. “Every year my sons ask me ‘Why can’t we go to Disneyland!’ I’m very up front with them, ‘Because we don’t have an extra $200!’ I say. But I still feel guilty.”

Add to this her frustration that the kids have free time but she doesn’t. “I can’t take time out from work because my job can’t stop for the summer,” she says. “So the kids have to go to camp and we can’t do many of the traditional ‘summer’ activities together, even if they’re free. And what that amounts to for me is constant burnout.”In other words, those “bad parent” feelings are even more uncomfortable in 100 degree heat.”I think that one of the problems is that summertime breaks through the denial of the rest of the year,” says Sylvia Martin, a therapist and co-author of “What a Woman,” a financial planning guide for the newly independent.

“Most single parents are busy just surviving, and all of the sudden there’s all of these unrealistic expectations. You may be scraping by, but during summer you want to get your kids all of these extras you see everyone else’s kids getting.

“But before you start beating yourself up, “Stop and take a breath,” advises Martin. “Say to yourself, ‘I may be the worst mother in the world, but let’s stop a minute. What’s really going on with me? What have I done right?’”

Admittedly, that answer is sometimes hard to come up with when you see the neighbors packing up for a tour of the Grand Canyon and you feel like you’re at the bottom of a big, dark hole. “But when you’re stressed out, and you’re tired,” says Martin, “That’s the time to breathe and be kind to yourself. If you don’t, you don’t have anything left over to give, emotionally.”

On the money front, a little advance planning can help weather the sticker-shock of summer. Next year, remember to give yourself a financial reminder ahead of time. According to investment counselor Mary Hamilton, co-author of “What a Woman,” “You need a head’s up that this can be a more expensive time of year than any other.”

But no need to keep the reminder to yourself. “Maybe the single parent that is living on the line needs to go to the other parent, or even to a grandparent or aunt,” Hamilton says. “Look around and find whoever’s in the network that would be willing to help you. Because if the grandmother is buying expensive clothes the child can’t use, she’d probably love to send her grandchild to camp.”

You may be talking about having someone else step up to bat for an extended period during the summer months. “Summer with Dad” (or time spent with grandparents, or even a good friend), can be a relief for single moms and sounds great to distanced loved ones, but the switch in primary parenting is never a simple thing.

“Perhaps you’re looking forward to having the child spend the summer with the father or whomever,” says Sylvia Martin, “But you also may be feeling guilty or resentful about it.” (Who wants to bet one struggling at home, when the “fun” parent can afford to take the kids to amusement parks and go on action-packed vacations?)

Plus, the bottom line is that the summer hand-off demands more contact—more very specific, nuts and bolts contact—with the Ex than you’re used to or may want. (“Very often why a marriage doesn’t work out is because the partners can’t resolve issues,” Martin comments. “And those issues are probably still there.”)

“I think that what helps is having open communication,” she continues. “Parents can kind of put it on the table, rather than having unspoken assumptions of what the individual roles and rules are. ‘You love Johnny and I love Johnny, so how can we keep our own emotions out of it and act like grown ups?’ And that,” she admits, “Is easier said than done.”

Steve, a single father of a son now in college, finds his life changing every July when his daughter gets off the plane to spend the summer. “With her, I get to be ‘Disneyland Dad,’” he laughs, “But it’s not a role that I wanted. It creates a pressure: while she’s here we have to cram in a year’s worth of everything. And before she comes I always wonder, ‘Will the bond still be there?’” Steve must work full-time during her visits during the summer, and although childcare isn’t an issue (his kids are 20 and 15), time definitely is. “Every year my daughter has changed so much and I feel like I’ve got to catch up. When she’s here there’s always a sense we should be doing something, or there’s something important we should be talking about. So there’s no normalcy and I end up exhausted.”

“I definitely want her to be here and she and her brother are best friends, but she misses her mother and her ‘real’ life at home. So,” Steve admits, “In some ways it’s almost a release at the end of the summer.”

“Kids!” says Sylvia Martin. “No matter how old they are, they know what’s going on, so be honest with them. Because a child of any age can help ease a situation by making an emotional investment. If you let them.”

Handling Summertime Transitions

Any parent knows that summer means a break from routine for children, and it’s often difficult to get them back on track when school starts. But for split families—when someone new leaps into the role of “primary parent” for a limited time—the adjustment can be downright painful. Some things to keep in mind when handling transitions, from school psychologist Christina Keefe:

  • Before children switch households for the summer, discuss what’s ahead. “Let kids know it’s not going to be the same at both houses, but rules are rules. And you can’t expect the other parent to have the same agenda.” The parent getting the kids might chat with them about how they see their summer unfolding, setting a couple of clear destinations or activities together, and parents should communicate with each other about what’s going to happen. Fewer unknowns equals fewer potential conflicts.
  • As summer winds down, it’s important for the “vacation” parent to acknowledge the time spent together, and also that it’s going to end. “Say to your child, ‘There are only five more days for our visit, and tonight’s our last dinner . . . how are you feeling?’ And if this is the last time you’ll see your child for awhile, the absolute best thing is to do a project together, something they can take home—maybe an art project, or a journal, or a photo album. Something that has meaning to it, not just 16 new toys.”
  • For the parent at home, do a summer de-briefing after the kids come back. Respect the space of your child’s relationship with the other parent, but be genuine and supportive. Ask questions like, ‘Did you have fun? What did you like best? Was any part hard?’ You need to send a message that it’s okay to talk about the hard stuff—you won’t use it as ammunition against the other parent.”

United Parenting Publications, July 2001


Looking for Local History:  Chevy Chase Canyon

“Announcing the Pre-opening of Fairyland!”

Chevy Chase EstatesThis is the provocative teaser on a real-estate flyer circa 1924, decorated with elaborate graphics and fanciful illustrations.

We’re talking, of course, about the development of Chevy Chase Canyon in Northeast Glendale. And in early 1924, this “hidden domaine” certainly seemed to be the place to buy for those in the know. “With lots priced from $950 to $2050! Phone Glendale 646 and Auto Will Call for You!” the advertisements read.

“Yes, it was a pretty big deal,” says George Ellison, at Glendale Central Library. He ought to know. He’s in charge of the Library’s Special Collections, a sacrosanct room which contains a goldmine of local Glendale history, including clues about the beginnings of this now tony neighborhood.

Bert Farrar was the brains behind this whole operation, buying up 1600 acres in the wooded canyon and madly marketing it. A sound strategy, at least judging by the headlines, which proclaimed the “completed sale of first unit just four weeks after 30 acre-area was placed on market!”

Barely a year later, the moving and shaking in Chevy Chase Canyon is declared as “The feature event of 1925!” The announcements promised “easy terms” enabling buyers to snatch up one of the “wonderful tree-clad homesites,” but included a disclaimer: “You will have to act at once in view of the importance of Chevy Chase Drive as a major traffic artery!”

That Farrar certainly had his finger on the pulse. Pretty soon the headlines declared, “With construction crews and steam shovel gangs more than doubled with all equipment working night and day shifts, it still has been impossible for the engineering force to open up new property as fast as it is sold.”

Welcome to Chevy Chase Canyon.

“Palatial Home of Bert Farrar, Founder Chevy Chase, Under Construction in Virgin Woods!”

“We thought Farrar House - Chevy Chase Canyon that was great,” says Jean Simone as she shows me the 1925 clipping. She and her husband, Edgardo, moved into the Farrar House at 2440 St. Andrews three years ago. Located on a hillside just above Chevy Chase Drive, “This was the second house built in the Chevy Chase Estates,” she says. “I think Farrar used this house to try to get people to come up and live in the canyon: `Look what you can have!’”

The Spanish home seems modest and unassuming from the street, but once you step into the foyer it’s another story: with a cozy paneled library to one side and a large tiled kitchen and dining are to another, you look down into a grand living room, with 17-foot ceilings and eight double french doors opening onto gardens on two sides, and absolutely spectacular canyon views.

“I think we were looking at it for over a year, in and out of escrow, before we finally moved in,” says Jean. “It was pretty dark and run down, definitely a fixer-upper, but my husband adored it. So we had a historical architect and two or three structural engineers look at it, and they gave us the high sign. As a matter of fact,” she continues, “The architect said that if we didn’t take it, he would.”

“Developer Plans to Retain as Many Trees as Possible”

The couple has been working restoring the Farrar House continually since they bought it, and they also acquired a neighboring parcel (rescuing it from hotel developers) so that the house sits on over an acre of land.

This amazing home is designed by Franz Harding, who with Lloyd Wright (student and son of Frank Lloyd Wright) and Frank Harrington, was one of three major architects attached to the development.

“It’s a wonderful old house,” says Jean. “It’s so fun to have something of this nature, and to slowly nurture it back to it’s original grandeur, keeping the integrity and its dignity. For the first two years we were doing stuff that no one could see, but now we’re getting to the pretty part,” she laughs. “I’ve been chomping at the bit!”

“Spanish Type Home in Chevy Chase Attracts Hundreds of People to View Model Structure”

“Yes, that’s this house,”Spanish Design Chevy - Chase Canyon says Nico Bally, “It was one of the ones used in the brochures.” In January he and his wife Jacqui moved into the impressive 1926 home at 2322 E. Chevy Chase Drive, and like most Canyon residents, he’s interested in researching the house and the area, getting to know all its quirks and stories.

Thrilled to be living in a little bit of history, he’s also diligently working at its upkeep. “We already re-did the foundation, and now we’re putting in central air. We moved from a little tiny house in Venice, and really love it here.” Nico pauses and smiles shyly, “We need the room because we’ve got a baby on the way.”

Although this house was designed by Frank Harrington, Nico tells me, up the block are two of Lloyd Wright’s houses; he completed three in the Canyon.

One of them is the Calori House (3021 E. Chevy Chase Drive), a “free adaptation” of the popular Spanish Colonial Revival design. Owner John DeGomez acquired the property in 1988 on a probate sale, and today it looks in beautiful condition, although views are obscured from the street by large trees.

“The Boulevards are a Delightful Afternoon’s Ride”

Derby House - Chevy Chase Canyon The Derby House (2535 E. Chevy Chase Drive) is more accessible, and also more distinctive; Wright made use of “textile blocks” made of concrete, reflecting the influence of pre-Columbian or Mayan Design to create a very unique home. In 1977 Glendale placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s frequently written up in architectural journals.

“We lived in another house down the street for four years before we moved here,” says Carole Dougherty, who has owned the Derby House since 1974. “But my husband is quite a walker, and he always said about this one, ‘If that house goes on the market, we’re going to buy it!’”

She laughs at this point. “That kind of scared me because it isn’t particularly inviting from the outside. He had to drag me up to look at it, but once I walked in the front door I was hooked.”

Carole laughs again, and says that although she and her husband, Michael, were thrilled (“We were taking classes in architecture at the time”) their twin eight year-old daughters weren’t. “They hated it because they had to share a bedroom. When we first moved in they cried, but within days all of their friends wanted to come over and see the house, and their parents, too. So they soon learned to love the notoriety. ”

“Homebuilders Flock to Chevy Chase”

“Our house was definitely built by someone who loved stone-work,” says Nan Freitas of 3001 E. Chevy Chase Drive, where her family’s lived for nine years. “And gardening. That’s why we bought it.” She explains that the original property of the 1926 hillside home extended into the two lots on either side, who now benefit from stone steps, walks, and terraces. “Next door there’s an outdoor kitchen,” she continues. “The man in back of us said the woman who used to live there kept an entire set of dishes out there for al fresco meals!”

In 1927, the area was growing by leaps and bounds, with the average price of a 1/3 acre home at $2,450. By 1929, the Canyon was attracting “a number of wealthy homebuyers from Hollywood and Pasadena.”

John Randolph has lived in the house at 2816 Chevy Chase Drive since 1950. Built in 1931, he tells me this was the home of actress Nora White, Hopalong Cassidy’s love interest on screen and off. “There’s one thing about this house,” he tells me, “Nora was desperately afraid of fire. When she and William Boyd built it, they put a door in every room of the house so that they could escape.”

“25 Minutes to Home, Golf and Peaceful Beauty, Just a Step From Downtown LA”

What Chevy Chase Canyon couldn’Chevy Chase Estatest escape, however, was the great depression. And the great plans and schemes of developer Bert Farrar went bust. Even with his marketing genius, without buyers he lost his acclaimed architects—Lloyd Wright was originally contracted to design fourteen houses here, Carole Dougherty tells me—and his own house in 1934.  But building in Chevy Chase Canyon picked back up again with the economic jolt of WWII, as is evidenced by the great number of 1940s homes in the Canyon.

Today, “the Southland’s most beautiful tree-clad residential park” is once again one of “the most popular in the district.” On a recent drive up the Canyon, the historic 1920s homes blend nicely with distinctive architecture from all eras, with modern developments extending high onto the hillsides. There are a couple of new homes under construction, as well.

And also quite a few “For Sale” signs.

Back at the Library, I ask George Ellison what the median price for a home in the Chevy Chase Estates is now-a-days.

“I couldn’t even begin to guess,” George answers wistfully.

But that’s a moot point. Surrounded by all this nostalgia, it’s perfectly clear: How can you put a price on Fairyland?

 —The Gazette, 2000


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