Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect



My mother breathed for me until I could breathe on my own, though apparently after I reluctantly squeezed through the channel into the outside world, I needed a slap on the bottom to start doing things on my own. This was to be a recurring pattern in my childhood.



Forcing me to breathe on my own was the first of mother’s insistence that I take responsibility for myself; she had her own life to live. Her job was to carry me through babyhood into childhood, where I could fend for myself.


She did her best: training me to sleep through the night by adding a bit of coffee to my bottle to keep me awake during the day, having me inoculated for the diseases she could and nursing me through the ones she couldn’t, teaching me to eat solid foods, introducing me to boxed cereal, dressing and shoeing me until I could make bizarre clothing choices on my own, and drilling in the necessity to shut the door when I went outside.


The trauma of getting me through my early years and up to the door-closing phase caused mother to forget the circumstances surrounding my birth, so the door drill was always accompanied by the question, “Were you born in a barn?” For all I knew or remembered I was, so if she couldn’t remember for me, how was I to know?


By the time I was four or five, I was free to leave home. I knew where the sugar-coated cereal was, and I knew that one coat was never enough; so after making sure the cereal was adequately dressed, I would eat my fill, find a mismatched pair of shorts and top, and go outside.


Childhood, I learned, took place outside. When adults were awake and in the house, we were told to go outside and play. Mother’s interest in what went on outside the house was limited to injuries involving a lot of blood, my own or others (if I were the cause of the blood-letting.) Other than that, I was free to roam around, engage in rock fights, create plays with my sister in the backyard, ride my bike around the neighborhood, experiment with smoking, set fires, and reassign the neighbors’ mail by taking it from one person’s mailbox and putting it in another’s.


For my major crimes, I was caught and punished, which kept me from careers in smoking, arson, and mail fraud. For the rest, I lived a life of my own choosing, a life largely unknown to my mother, as hers was to me.


Mother never felt the need to entertain me, hover over me, or know what I was up to. I discovered most of the world on my own – learned how to make and break alliances, how to climb a tree and watch the world, where to hide when I didn’t want to be found, how far I could go without losing my way, and when to come home.


Like so many mothers of that era, mother left me on my own for much of the time. I think of it as benign neglect, but it was really the freedom to find my way. I’m still doing that – finding my way, still making mistakes, and still watching the world.


Next month will be ten years since mother last breathed. Had I been able to breathe for her and keep her longer, I would have gladly done so. But that is something only the mother can do for the child.


Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to breathe life back into her memory and thank her for telling me to get out of the house, shut the door behind me, and go outside so I could discover the world on my own.

41 thoughts on “Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect

  1. I was rarely permitted the chance to escape to the outdoors, but truly cherished all those undiscovered adventures when given the opportunity. I think sometimes the strongest message I ever received from my mother was that survival was not just a skill, but actually a requirement. You can’t lean in the direction of discovery, if you aren’t there to enjoy to journey. Like you, I’m still on the road to discovery.

    Thanks, Mom.

    And thanks to you, too, for sharing this piece of your story. Always appreciated. You have such a lovely way of stitching the pain and love together in the same sentence, and creating something that is both beautiful and true.

  2. I know in many ways our childhoods were different, but still we had a lot in common, and you’ve shone your usual gentle light on some of those. Lost my mother 14 years ago. You never quite get used to it, do you? Today’s young mothers would be appalled, I’m afraid, at how much freedom and responsibility for ourselves we had, but I’m appalled at how little today’s kids have, and I think we had the better deal.

    • I am one of those who hasn’t gotten over the loss of my mother. I would dearly love to sit down with a cup of coffee and talk to her again.

      I loved having a world of my own, a place too large for the the grown-ups, who preferred life inside the house.

  3. My mom died 33 years ago. I am older than she ever was and now when I look in the mirror I see a shadow of her looking back.
    Lovely words about your mother…

  4. What a lovely tribute. I grew up with a huge backyard and lots of animals, and most of my memories take place outside with my brothers, away from the grownups. This must have made quite an effect on me, for when I grew up and went to film school, someone remarked on my work – ‘Parents are noticeably absent from your films.’

  5. My mother used to say, go outside and play….and take your brothers with you. And stay together. So we, with the neighbor kids wandered all over town to the pool on the other side of the freeway, to the park for sledding and ice skating. We had to walk everywhere because the family only had one car.

  6. Lovely tribute.

    Times sure have changed and something terrible is being lost. We hover over children as if they were the center of the universe and made of glass. The world is too dangerous of a place for them to exist in unsupervised and they are nothing more then potential victims of it all.

    A few years later we discover we now live in a dangerous world full of potential victims who must be constantly supervised for their own protection. Go figure.

  7. It’s never easy being a mother – but being able to send them out and not worry too much is a good indication of her trust in you. I’m younger, but had the same upbringing – ‘go outside and blow the stink off, go!’ I climbed huge trees, sledded down sand dunes, ended up full of holes from various plant life, also set fires and caused trouble. We all seem the better for it!

    • I don’t know that my mother trusted me all that much. I was always into trouble. It seemed to be common among all my friends to be sent out of doors to play. My mothers and the others may have done it just to have some peace and quiet, but I’m so thankful I had that freedom.

  8. Margie

    Thanks for the nice reminder of Mother’s who are gone and the childhood they let us have.
    My mom used to boot us out the door in the morning and expect us home by the evening meal. I suppose we showed up for lunch too, but maybe she just put a peanut butter sandwich out on the porch and we ate on the run!

    • My friends and I were a horde of barbarians – barefoot, clothed only because we had to be, roaming around the neighborhood to raid as many refrigerators as we could before we were vanquished by the grown-ups.

  9. Ever so much better, this kind of mothering that trusts us to find our way—to ask for help when we need it but otherwise, to muster our own resources and take part in our own growth—than the so-called helicopter and lawnmower parents of today. I abhor the idea that everything should be smoothed out, fixed and made perfect for any kid, but the more so because it tends to produce awful little entitled monsters who have zero sense of responsibility or citizenship outside of how it can further make them rich. Your mom produced, instead, an intrepid, smart, engaged person, and I imagine that beyond your genetic predispositions, her methodology played at least a part in how excellent you turned out to be.

    • When I finally grow up I hope to be an “intrepid, smart, engaged person.” I suspect you had a similar upbringing and that it helped you become the creative and smart person that you are.

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