Mocha Moms Share Life Lessons

The Mocha Moms - Jolene Ivey, Davina McFarland and Asra Nomani - are joined by guest mom Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "Mommy Wars," a collection of essays about modern motherhood. They talk about what life lessons they learned from their own moms.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mothers' support group each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice. Mother's Day is just around the corner. But today instead of jewelry and flowers, although we do like those, we thought what we'd really like would be a little booster shot of life lessons.

So we're going to share some good advice, the best advice that we got from our own mothers. I'm joined by the regular Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Davina McFarland and Asra Nomani. I would also like to welcome a new mom to the table, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She is the editor of "Mommy Wars," a collection of essays about modern motherhood. She also writes a blog at the washingtonpost.com about the work and family balance. Welcome, ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: (Mocha Mom) Hey Michel.

Ms. DAVINA MCFARLAND: (Mocha Mom) Hi Michel.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI: (Mocha Mom) Hello Michel.

Ms. LESLIE STEINER: (Editor of "Mommy Wars") Hi Michel.

MARTIN: Jolene, let me start with you. You had a mom and a stepmom, right?

Ms. IVEY: And a grandma.

MARTIN: And a grandma. Did they give you advice that you have used in raising your five boys?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I have to say that my grandmother was a huge influence on me, because she's the one who moved in when my mother moved out. And she would always say that you couldn't spoil them with love. And she was referring to me and my brother. And any time my dad would complain that she was doing too much for us or she was spoiling us, she would say, oh, no, no, you can't spoil them with love. I really appreciate that. I look at my kids now, and you know, you can spoil kids with too many things, but you can't spoil them with love. So that's something I really remember from her.

MARTIN: That's great. Davina, what about you?

Ms. McFARLAND: My mom was a person who - I'm sorry, is a person - who is very outspoken and very bold with everything that she has to say. And I think that's something that I definitely took from her. She taught us...

MARTIN: No kidding!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: She taught us at a very young age that it was always OK to speak your mind, as long as you were respectful. And I carried that on to my own parenting. You know, my children often will tell me, actually, mom, it's not this or that. You know, in a smarmy kind of tone, which I don't necessarily appreciate. But they are children who have opinions, and they don't mind expressing them. And I like that.

MARTIN: It might have been a little unusual when you were coming up. I remember that was definitely when we were on the...

Ms. IVEY: Be seen and not heard?

MARTIN: The be seen and not heard era which had not yet, you know, ended.

Ms. McFARLAND: You're absolutely right.

MARTIN: When we were coming up, right?

Ms. MCFARLAND: That's absolutely true. And I think my mom probably took a little flack from her peers because we spoke out and, you know, we were always encouraged. You know, what do you think? I might not agree, and I might not change my mind, but I want to hear your opinion, and it's valuable.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Asra, what about you?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, my mom you know was a woman who grew up in a conservative Muslim family, wore the full-on black veil until her 20s. And she came to America. And I really feel that through the way she lived her life, she helped to set me free from so much that I had also inherited. And I think back at this moment when I was eight months pregnant, I was, you know, huge. It was the fall of 2002 and beautiful outside, but I was just weighed down by this shame that I felt for not being married and pregnant.

And my mother just looked at me on this walk that we took among those, you know, leaves of starburst colors and said, you're free, you know, you are free. And it took her, you know, a woman who's a couple of decades older than me, right, to set me free. And then I was able to enjoy my baby shower and raise my child without feeling this burden of voices that she told me I didn't have to listen to. And that's what I appreciate so much about her.

MARTIN: Yeah, your mom is something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She is definitely something else. You know she still is this very, she's tiny, she's petit, very soft spoken, and just, you would not know that there is a will of iron there that really is willing to not back down.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, she's got my back. And in that same way that you were talking about, where it's not in your face, you know, it's how they lived their lives, that they've taught us so much.

MARTIN: Lesley, what about you?

Ms. STEINER: Well, you know, I had an incredible epiphany about my mom when I was writing "Mommy Wars," because I and every other writer in the book, we wrote extensively about our own mothers, even though what we were supposed to be doing was writing about our decision to work or stay home once we had kids. And I realized that motherhood, just, it starts with our moms. And I was so lucky because my mom had five kids in the '60s, and she loved being with us. And I took that confident, easy-going approach to motherhood when I had my own first child.

MARTIN: You know, Asra, I was thinking about you, because when my twins were born I was fortunate to have a baby nurse, and she was wonderful. You know, I kissed the ground she walks on. But I also noticed that I deferred to her even when I didn't necessarily agree. And I was thinking about you because your mom, she does have your back, but she also - you all live together, and your dad. And I just wonder sometimes is it that - was it hard to find your voice as a mother? Even though you love your mother so much, and she's so supportive of you.

Ms. NOMANI: Oh. And trust me, I'm the unappreciative daughter that, you know, anyone of us could be. No, I didn't have the conversation the other day when I came home and my mom reminded me of a bill I hadn't paid. I really did not say to my mom, stop nagging me! No. Just before I came here I told my mom, OK, I'm not going to be able to be home when Shibli needs to go to bed. So I really need you not to curl up in bed with him. Just sit on the floor, pretend to be meditating, just like Supernanny tells us to do to get them to sleep on their own. And so my mom looked at me very, you know, respectfully and said, OK. You know, just...

MARTIN: She's so going to be curling up with that kid.

Ms. NOMANI: Oh, my gosh. I know. And I'm still - you know, she's just placating me, right?

MARTIN: That's funny.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Leslie, is this something that comes up on the blog, the relationship between moms and the daughters who have become moms?

Ms. STEINER: Oh, it is just such incredibly fertile ground, how different your own mom is. I mean, one of the things that's so great about motherhood is that we all do it totally differently, and our moms can help us by doing things right or wrong. My mother, although she loved being with us so much, she - after about ten years she was going crazy because we drove her crazy, and she wanted to go back to work. And as a teenage girl I saw her so happy when she went back. She became a teacher, and it helped me see what I wanted to do. And I think it helped me a lot every time I went back to work after having a kid. The fact that I knew that I would never be happy staying home.

MARTIN: I wonder how many people like the way they were raised.

Ms. IVEY: Well, nobody comes from a perfect family, whatever that is. And certainly mine wasn't perfect. I mean, my mom left when I was three. But we have a great relationship. And the thing that I get from her is she had a ball. We had fun together. She would take us out in the middle of the night to 7-Eleven and buy honey buns, you know. And that's not something my dad would ever do. He's so conservative and serious. And so with my kids I try to take the silly, fun things that my mom would do, and at the same time keep the family intact.

MARTIN: How hard was it for you to get to that place where you could take the good and leave the bad behind, because I could see where some people could get the opposite message from that, and that's who I do not want to be! Because of that feeling of abandonment and anger.

Ms. IVEY: You know, I think what really did it is my dad is pretty much the perfect man, and he never said an unkind word about my mother up to this day. And in fact, now they talk on the phone every day. So, because my father has been so good about my mother, I didn't have any resentment towards her at all. In fact, he told us that they had joint custody, and I found out years later that was wrong. He had sole custody of us.

But you know, he did anything he could to protect her image with us. And we had a great relationship and have a great relationship with her. I think the tough time I had was when my oldest child was six and my younger one was three and I looked at them and said, oh my God, this is what she left. And that was very upsetting for me, but you know, I've worked through it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm talking with the Mocha Moms about what they learned from their own mothers. Davina, what do you think? Has your dialogue with your mom changed as you've gotten older, become a mom yourself? More mature - you're not older, just more seasoned.

Ms. McFARLAND: Thank you. Right. There you go. Beyond her telling me constantly, see the child that you were, that's the child that you have. So every time I complain about one of mine she says um-hum. No, our conversation has absolutely changed dramatically because I'm a mom. I think you don't really appreciate your own mother until you become a mother. So our conversation has changed. I say thanks a lot more. I appreciate her more, I think, now that I'm a mom, than I ever did before.

My mom is not the advice giver, she's the person who kind of leads by example. So she'll say, well, when you were this age, this is what I did. And that's as far as it goes. My mother-in-law is actually a lot more skilled at that. My mother-in-law will never really give you her opinion, she just gives you the eye. If she likes it, you know because she gives you an eye. And if she doesn't, you know because she won't look at you at all.

MARTIN: Oh dear. That's deep.

Ms. McFARLAND: But you know, I respect that about her because she says, you know, you're their parent, and you're raising them, and you're doing what you want to do and the way that you want to do it, and I can respect that. And she never involves herself.

MARTIN: That's a gift. Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: My mother-in-law would give me occasional advice, but I always take it very well, and she's very sweet about it. And we don't always agree, but at the end, you know, whatever decision we've made is fine with her. And she seems to think we're doing a good job. So that's nice.

MARTIN: Leslie, you know what I'm curious about is one of the things I don't think I appreciated until I had children is just how desperate you can feel as a parent, just how completely stupid and alone that you can feel. You know what I mean? I don't know whether if it's the middle of the night when you cannot get the baby to sleep or when you just have, you know - and I don't think it's hard to describe. And I wonder whether in our mothers' era, whether they were honest about that with each other. I mean one of the advantages of being in this era is you are inundated with advice from everywhere. You know, the Internet and you've got 50 books on the shelves. So that's there. But the good part of that is you realize you're not crazy. It's easier to feel like, OK, I'm not crazy.

Ms. STEINER: I just see that so much. I think the Internet really helps that. You can be at home alone and you can get advice from 100,000 moms just with a few keystrokes. And I think it's something that people don't talk about enough is how incredibly difficult, especially early motherhood is. Whether you're working or staying at home, whether you have a healthy baby or a sick baby, whether you have a great husband or no husband, it is really lonely and isolating and you've never done it before, and it's new to you even if you have five kids like Jolene. If she had a sixth it would be a whole new baby and it's a whole new thing. So I think that is a wonderful thing about mothering the way that we do today, is that we have so much more information.

MARTIN: On the other hand though, you and I had a conversation before you came here about "Mommy Wars." And my, kind of, visceral reaction to this whole idea that - you know, this whole thing with moms judging each other about their decisions - I'm like, you know, keep it to yourself. Is there a part of that echo chamber of society where women feel perhaps more judged because there's so many people willing to tell you, who don't know you, why you're wrong, whatever your decision is.

Ms. STEINER: Right. That's true. I think that's particularly true in America in, sort of, mainstream American society. There are just - it's, sort of, wallpaper in our lives that we're always being told how long we should breastfeed for and that if we don't breastfeed long enough our kid is going to lose IQ points. And I always say that what moms really want for Mother's Day is for another mom to tell them sincerely that they think they're a good mom.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask how everybody wants to celebrate Mother's Day this year. You know I'm going to ask, so I'm just letting you know. But I do wonder if there's some advice that you are saving for your children. Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: Well, having boys, you know, mostly I just want my boys to enjoy their children and that's about it. If you can just enjoy your kids, that gives them a great message that they are worthy of being enjoyed.

MARTIN: Davina, is there any advice you're holding for your children?

Ms. McFARLAND: I agree with Jolene a little bit. I want them to enjoy parenthood. I want my daughter to enjoy motherhood, but I also want her to enjoy her womanhood and to know that the two can coincide. You can be a woman and all of who you are and someone's mom.

MARTIN: That's great. Leslie?

Ms. STEINER: One of the gifts I'd like to pass on are the ones that my mom gave me. And one of them, ironically, was that she never pressured me to have children. She never said that I had to have a kid to feel fulfilled or anything like that. And I'd like to pass that on to my son and my two daughters. And if they do have kids, I'm with everybody else. I just want them to enjoy it, to just be passionate about it. To live large and to enjoy the great moments and also to, kind of, laugh at the crazy moments when you're screaming at them or you're mad at yourself or they're driving you crazy and you feel like you're going to end up in a mental hospital.

Because, you know, motherhood, parenthood, is incredibly hard. And no one can capture the great highs and the great lows. And this idea that motherhood is supposed to balance us is so crazy. Kids are actually supposed to unbalance us and make us feel rage like we never felt before and love like we never felt before and peace and insanity. And I would encourage my kids to just go for it with their eyes wide open and try to enjoy it as much as possible.

MARTIN: Asra, what about you?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, my son who's five - Chiblee, right - he's convinced that he's going to be the first man ever to be able to carry a baby. Yeah!

MARTIN: Too late.

Ms. NOMANI: But you know, what I'm trying already with Chiblee is to have the philosophy that I tried to have in my own life - because I had him when I was quite late in life, in my late thirties, and didn't know if I was going to have children - and really believe that we all have to carry a maternal spirit about us in our days, whether you have biological children or whether you are a child yourself. Look out - you know, he's in pre-k - look out for the three and four year olds. Like, have that spirit, whether you're a boy or a girl or a man or a woman, where you are nurturing and compassionate, because we have to have each other's backs like our moms had ours.

MARTIN: That's lovely. OK. Well, enough about them. What do we want? Let's go around the table. What does everybody want for Mother's Day this year? And you can go wild, it doesn't have to be what you're really going to get. But it could be. What do you want? Davina, what do you want?

Ms. McFARLAND: Weekend at the beach, alone.

MARTIN: Oh. Excuse me, mommy. Leslie?

Ms. STEINER: What I always want is books and books and books. My husband is not a huge reader, but he is a good researcher and he often gets me just, you know, a dozen wonderful books.

MARTIN: Wow. That's nice. Asra, what do you want?

Ms. NOMANI: I just want that look. You guys know that look when your kid looks in your eyes and just has - just loves you and adores you and, you know, not copping an attitude, not deciding that this was a time to practice new words. Just that love, that deep love. That's treasure enough.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you?

Ms. IVEY: I'll take Asra's the day after Mother's Day. But the perfect mother's day starts with me leaving the house before they get up and me not coming home until they're all in bed. So, more in line with Davina's, but I don't have to be alone. I like to meet a girlfriend, have lunch, go to the movies, have a drink, whatever.

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, let me clarify because when I said alone I meant without the children.

MARTIN: Well, you know me, all I want is some sleep. That's all I want is for people to get the people before they wake me up and let me sleep until I'm ready to wake up on my own.

Ms. IVEY: Wouldn't that be nice.

MARTIN: Without assistance. If anybody's listening, that's what I want. The Mocha Moms: Jolene Ivey, Davina McFarland, and Asra Nomani. And a new mom, Leslie Morgan Steiner, she's the author of "Mommy Wars," and writes at the washingtonpost.com about balancing work and family. They were all here in our Washington studio. Happy Mother's Day, moms. And thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Happy Mother's Day, Michel.

Ms. MCFARLAND: Happy Mother's Day.

Ms. NOMAI: Happy Mother's Day.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. The show will broadcast from WJSU in Jackson, Mississippi. I'm on my way to the airport. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more from Mississippi, tomorrow.

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