Kids can teach us so much about our own lives.
This is a love letter to all my kids*. I learned so much from being able to "practice" with you. Thank you to your parents for hiring me all those years ago and thank you to each of you for allowing me to develop my personal and professional skills in an unforgettably real way. I started my life as a full-time nanny at the age of 19. It continued until I left for graduate school at the age of 26. During that time, I worked for a variety of families and learned so much from the experience. Spending time with these children made me the wife, mother and stepmother I am today. In addition to that, it allowed me to explore my fascination with human development while I learned it in school. Few people get to have real-life experience with the thing in which they major during their undergraduate education. I hope you each see how much you meant to me as I share these stories.
Of all the lessons learned, these are the top 5 most important:
1. Set Expectations Up Front: One of the most difficult things for people to do is to set clear expectations. As a nanny, I did a lot of running around trying to manage behavior as it happened. It was like running interference, especially when they would almost seem to gang up on me and each run opposite ways in public. One day, out of sheer frustration, I parked the car in the lot outside the library and turned to Mikey (1.5 years) and John William (3 years). I said, "Here are the rules for the library. No running, No yelling and stay by me." I made them repeat it back (or in Mikey's case, nod in understanding.) Each time we went to the library, I would park, turn to them and repeat those three rules. When inside, all I had to do was ask, "What are the rules for the library?" Eventually, the rules applied to all public forums. It got to be so consistent, that one day I pulled into the library lot and John threw up his hands and said, "We know, we know, we know! No running, no yelling and stay by you."
The funny thing is, this works in all types of relationships. When I became employed in my first post-graduate position, I used this tactic often. Not only did it work great when managing up, but also when managing my clients. I consulted with many types of organizations, and was respected by them because I was clear in what I could and could not do. I didn't pretend I had powers I didn't, or say yes to things just because they requested them. Also, when speaking with my managers, I would clearly discuss the goals I had for my career and how I saw that fitting into my long-term plan. I even used the technique when discussing our dating relationship with my now husband. It sounds like a different skill, but clear expectations run the spectrum of relationships.
2. Appreciate The Little Things: Being with children who discover new things can really teach you to stop, think and appreciate every moment. I spent hours walking Connor around the cul-de-sac. He would push a little mower until he tired of it, then I would carry it while he picked up rocks to show me. All the same rocks that were there yesterday and would be there tomorrow. But he loved them. Connor was also fascinated by school buses. He would say in his baby talk, "Eesa, Eesa, lellow bus! Lellow bus!" Every time he would see one, he would exclaim its existence as if it was the first one he'd ever seen.
I still think of him when I point out school buses to my son. And from those small moments of connection, excitement and pleasure, I learned to savor the good in each day. I can't say that I fully embrace each day, especially when it's full of work, marriage, all three children and is generally chaotic. But I stop and remind myself that this is the life I chose and I am so blessed to have it. At those times, I sit down with my toddler and play for a while or set tasks aside and just hang out with my stepchildren and husband. Immersing myself in the little moments that life brings leads me to even greater peace and joy.
3. It's Okay To Be Uncomfortable: Watching children face fear, push through uncomfortable situations and come out enthusiastic in the end is a great reminder to myself. I had three girls, Caitlin, Camey and Kylie. After learning to walk inside during winter, Kylie was first exposed to the wood chips at the park in the spring. At first, she just half-squatted and cried. But eventually, you couldn't stop her from darting from swing to slide, and back again.
A bit after that, her oldest sister, Caitlin, was headed to first grade at the same time I was headed to graduate school. I asked her, "Aren't you excited? You get to go to school all day!” She said, "I'm worried that I won't know everything I'm supposed to." The irony was that I was feeling the same thing about heading to my graduate program. While I could tell her that she will start out reviewing things she knows and that everyone will learn the new things together, that isn't easy to remember as an adult.
While change and new experiences can be very uncomfortable, they normally don't hurt. It just takes commitment to forward movement. Much like new wood chips and first grade, new experiences are a bit scary. But I remind myself that change will not hurt, it will just be uncomfortable for a while and that being uncomfortable is okay.
4. Love Is Boundless: In working with blended families, and being a stepmom in a blended family, I bump into concerns about the love of children. Can they really love all their parents and stepparents without hindering the parental bonds? The simple answer is "Of course!" But how could I know? Beyond the intellectual theories of secure attachment, which indicate that the more happy, loving relationships children have, the better. I know that there isn't a limit to the number of people you can care for and love because I have done it. Each of my children were special to me in their own unique ways. I cared about them, appreciated their personalities and shared in their lives. Moving to a new family didn't mean I stopped loving the children in my previous families. It just added to the list.
So when my blended family clients discuss concerns about being replaced or pushed out of the way by stepparents, I make sure to educate them. If allowed, children will only learn more love, acceptance and tolerance. Parents, the primary attachment figures in children's lives, set the expectations in these relationships. Some even punish their children for not "choosing" them, overtly or covertly, through anger or shunning. It's fruitless and only causes pain to the children. For me, learning to love each child in my life only led me to know how to love the next one.
That experience taught me how to meet my stepchildren where they were at in their relationships and to truly love them. After having my son, people told me that I must know what it is like to love someone more than I ever thought possible, snd I can honestly tell them that that isn't true for me. I have loved all my children just as much. And I love my stepchildren just as much as I do my son. As a stepmom, I see myself as an authority figure and guide for the children and a supportive partner to my husband while he navigates his role as father. I only feel more responsibility for my son because, with him, the buck stops here. Each of my children have gifted me with moments of overwhelming love and affection.
5. How To Say "Goodbye": Each time I had to move from one family to another was painful. I spent so much time loving, caring for and encouraging each of my children. I learned alongside them. They learned how to be a healthy, happy person and I learned how to be a better version of myself. Saying goodbye to them didn't make those experiences and connections less real for me. It just meant that I didn't see them on a regular basis anymore. I was still able to take with me the joy I felt with them and hope that they took something from our time together, however small.
This helps me let go of my stepchildren when they transfer homes and appreciate the time I have with them. They bring so much chaos. My house is always in a state of disrepair when they are here — but I love it. I can clean up when they go. Even my son notices the difference. At thirteen months, he will look around for them after they leave. And I can see how much he misses them. This is a lesson he must learn. It is a transition I see my husband endure each time we drop off the children to their mom's. Perhaps my experience has allowed me to empathize with my boys and be a better mother and wife.
As I turn 39, I realized that a full twenty years has passed since I first found a job as a nanny. First, how did that happen?! Next, it's time to stop and express appreciation to people in my life. Most of you are in high school or college — even graduated from college by now. As you embark on adulthood, please know that spending time with you has helped me to be the person I am now. Thank you. Words cannot express my appreciation.
Teresa Petersen Mendoza
*Taylor & Robert; Connor; Brian & Matthew; Michael; John William & Michael; Caitlin, Camey & Kylie