Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Susan Isaacs Kohl

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Susan Isaacs Kohl, author of The Best Things Parents Do, is a mother and grandmother. Her new book is a collection of essays that focus on what parents do that is right and what parents can do more of, and is intended to help counter society’s incessant criticism of parents. "We have become experts in cheering ourselves on in almost every arena of life but child-rearing," she says. Kohl lives in Northern California and heads The Meher Schools in Lafayette. She has been a college instructor, Head Start and Child Development Project consultant, writer, and a single parent. In an interview with Profiles Editor Joanne Catz Hartman, Kohl discusses her new book, the importance of writing in motherhood, and the change in relationships once children are grown.

Joanne Catz Hartman: What was the inspiration behind the book -- how did it come to be?

Susan Isaacs Kohl: My work with mothers as a parent consultant was the inspiration. I see what self-criticism we put ourselves through and how little external appreciation we get for all our efforts. As a mother, I feel so strongly with women stretching themselves to the best for their children in a society that promotes second-guessing everything they do. Learning to love themselves, stopping and appreciating themselves, and spreading that love to other mothers will make mothering the fulfilling experience we want it to be.

JCH: You say we're hard on ourselves about child-rearing and that parents are more anxious about doing it right than any other time in history. Why do you think this is so?

SK: The continual avalanche of information makes assimilating all the latest facts an unattainable goal. There is also an emphasis on how much mothers do -- how many activities they can drive their kids to, how much enrichment they provide. A good mother's supposed to be the one balancing the most balls or the one who knows all the answers.

What a crazy-making treadmill we've created! What about a mother's internal qualities? What about her ability to care for herself emotionally, to encourage herself through affirmations and positive self-talk?

In an age when parents need to be united and offer each other support, the mania to "do it right" separates mothers even before they give birth. We categorize people who eat natural foods and those who don't, those who have natural childbirth, breastfeed, allow their kids to watch TV, etc., etc. I recently read a letter in Mothering magazine by a woman who stopped buying the magazine for several months. Since she hadn't managed natural childbirth, she felt she wasn't a good enough mother to deserve to read the magazine.

JCH: What are your thoughts on the role of writing and motherhood?

SK: I love hearing mothers' stories of growth and learning! I started working with moms before I was a mother myself. They told me that becoming a parent would change me, and it did -- extraordinarily so. I was compelled to tell mothers' stories, and my first book written with Marti Keller, The Inner Parent, is full of mothers' poetry and writing. I have had the pleasure of working with mothers from a wide variety of cultures and can tell you that good mothering has little to do with keeping all those balls in the air. It's far more important that we learn to enjoy our roles and our time with our kids, and writing helps that process.

I've seen how writing helps mothers to understand children's development. It also helps them to fit their own emotions into the equation. Writing about things kids do anecdotally is far better than any baby book to look back on. I really believe any kind of writing is a form of great self-care for mothers.

I wrote with my kids playing nearby, and all three of them love writing in different forms. They actually help me with my writing now, when I need feedback.

JCH: You write: "Our lives are so over-scheduled with activities that research shows cooperative abilities in children are actually in danger of extinction." Why are cooperative activities important for children, and what can we do about this?

SK: Our society focuses so insanely on the individual and on competition. Yet working with other people on projects, playing together, brings so much joy. Our ability to cooperate makes all the difference in our success as students or as workers in a career. Cooperation doesn't come automatically, however -- it depends on learned skills and attitudes.

JCH: What experiences can you recall from your teaching and parenting where praising children for their efforts was put to use, and what did you learn from it?

SK: I see ways that praising effort works every day in the school where I work. With my own children, their participation in chores comes to mind. I focused on their desire to help rather than doing the job perfectly in the beginning. I do the same with my grandchildren. On Thanksgiving, I taught my four-year-old grandson to set the table. He wanted the napkins folded in a triangle rather than a rectangle, so we tried that.

JCH: What do you mean by parenting one hour at a time?

SK: Not projecting the hard time or the failure into the future. The kids might be fighting right now, but that doesn't mean our whole life will be refereeing fights.

JCH: How can parents help children hold on to optimism, and are there ways you've witnessed parents doing this?

SK: Listening to their feelings and helping them to think about what make them happy. Complimenting them on their abilities to handle hard emotions -- anger, frustration, and sadness --even when they display them prominently. Encouraging them to follow through on projects and celebrating their perseverance. Getting intense when they do little things right rather the opposite (getting intense to show them we don't want them to do something wrong again).

JCH: You write about the importance of really listening -- stopping and focusing on the child -- in this rushed environment most of us live in. Can you explain more about this?

SK: Our lives are so overwhelming that the busyness of the day and tasks that cry out for our attention can easily eclipse time spent playing or hanging out with our children. In the long run, it's those moments of closeness that we will cherish and that our kids will fall back on.

JCH: What are some of your thoughts on the difference between parenting and grandparenting, and can you tell us about your grown children and your relationship with them?

SK: I still work at my relationships with my grown children; each stage has its own challenges. Now it's about observing boundaries, listening, letting go, trying not to offer advice, expressing excitement about their interests and learning. They definitely tell me when I step over the line and offer advice or try to influence an outcome. Learning how to respect their decisions even when they go through hard times has been a major struggle for me. I see so fully how their lives, even the painful parts, are their own. However, I see how an emphasis on spiritual values, like being kind, helpful and fully committing to life, blossoms in such individual ways. I never could have guessed at my children's careers (writer, professor in Slavic languages and literature, folklorist) but I love their confidence in following their passions. They are all wonderful, and I feel lucky to be in their lives.

The thing about being a grandparent is that you've learned so much more about yourself and have a bigger perspective on what's important in life. Yet, you have to learn detachment because your grandchildren aren't your children. The expression of what you've learned comes through your direct interactions with them. For me, and most of my friends who are grandparents, that's utter joy. We've learned more about being unconditional and in the moment.

JCH: What's your next project?

SK: I'm working on a book for mothers tentatively titled "You're A Better Mother Than You Think." I think we haven't yet discovered the importance of parental self-esteem.

JCH: What do you feel are the most important things that parents should know and do?

SK: I think it's important to love yourself and make friends with your own emotions. That way you'll be able to give your child real help in handling their own difficult feelings.

Learn to love all parts of yourself so that you'll be able to love your child more fully. Emphasize cooperation, empathy, and kindness by demonstrating those qualities and noticing when they emerge. Connect with your spiritual ideals and share them daily. It will help your child make sense of life and pay attention to the heart as well as the head. Believe that the values you teach matter, not just in your family, but also in the world as it goes through difficult changes and gives birth to a new humanity.


Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.


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