Style & Substance: 5 Parenting lessons from My Mother-in-Law

Some mother-in-laws are made in hell. Mine was made in heaven.

She recently passed away at 85, giving me a chance to reflect on her legacy. Below is my eulogy for Elaine Blatt Artoe. May her wisdom benefit you too!

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I first met Elaine when her daughter Beth and I became friends in high school. Later, I married her son Bill and she became my mother-in-law and then grandmother to our two girls.

So mourning our loss, I often recall the things Elaine taught me about being a parent. Today I’d like to share 5 lessons from a stylish lady with a lot of smarts.

1. It is Small Stuff

One day Elaine walked into the room where I was playing with our toddler, Jessica. I was agonizing over whether Jessica needed a nap.

Actually, I was struggling with the whole nap thing. If we skipped the nap, would Jessica cry later? Was it time to end the nap? Is there life beyond the nap?

My mother-in-law said, “None of it will matter in 40 years,” then shrugged and left the room.

That was classic Elaine. Those fancy feathers didn’t ruffle easily. She was always calm and had the one thing I lacked as a new parent: perspective.

It’s one reason her presence was so steadying. Elaine didn’t sweat the small stuff, and as a result, she helped me focus on what mattered.

2. You Can Parent Different Children Well

My husband and sister-in-law are opposites. Beth is an extrovert – fast, witty and gifted in the arts. Bill is an introvert – slow, analytical and a professor of tax law.

As Beth once said, “My brother is an oil well and I am an oil spill.”

It’s not easy to manage an oil well and an oil spill in the same house. What works for one child can be wrong for the other. Children can get locked into roles.

The smart one. The gifted one. The easy one. The hard one.

But this wasn’t a problem for Elaine because she accepted each of her children for who they were. She encouraged them to bloom and grow in their separate directions, even when it meant moving far from home.

And so she leaves a great legacy with Bill and Beth: two remarkable people who are pursuing their different passions with purpose. Bravo Elaine, you did a great job.

3. Involvement Counts

When I married Bill, I assumed that he’d come to his smarts naturally. Elaine had been a brilliant student, the only woman in her 1951 law school class at Northwestern.

Then I learned that Bill’s talents had not always been on display.

Bill liked to come home from high school, watch TV and eat cookies. He had trouble finishing his term papers.

“He never knew when to stop researching,” Elaine complained years later.

But as my husband recalls, “Mom and I were a team.”

Every night they tackled his hardest assignments together. Advanced math in high school almost killed them both. But Elaine never left the trenches no matter how hard it got.

So what happened? The boy who could not start writing his term papers went to Harvard Law School. He’s now a professor who loves his job. Most nights, though, you can find him helping with homework.

The torch is passed. Thank you Elaine.

4. It’s Not About Quality Time

There’s a lot of talk about spending quality time with your kids.

Invent a game! Fly to Disney World! The idea is that if time with your children is meaningful, less of it is okay.

Well, Elaine didn’t do quality time. She just did time and a lot of it.

Elaine visited us often. And when she landed she boarded the family train and shared the ride, even when it got tedious.

She read endless bedtime stories to our girls. She spent days at the kids’ park. If Bill had to work in his office, she read a book there – all afternoon.

And that’s why I feel like some great foundation has been pulled out from under us. Regular visits. Sunday phone calls. Birthday cards every year.

The best kind of love is predictable and present.

In an age of Hallmark moments, Elaine understood the simple value of being together. Her presence made all of us feel more secure.

5. Wear Lipstick and Carry a Great Purse

About the time Elaine visited to see her first grandchild, my daughter Isabelle, I was facing that question new moms confront with the first baby: should I ever change my clothes again?

We weren’t going out. I could wear sweats all day. And why bother with makeup or jewelry?

So I didn’t. Then Elaine arrived. She was wearing a smashing jacket, an armful of sparkling bracelets and two huge rings. And she wasn’t going anywhere either.

I went back to my room. I put on makeup, earrings and a new shirt. I threw a lipstick in the diaper-changing bag. And I’ve been wearing it ever since.

It’s easy to lose part of yourself as a woman when you become a mother. Elaine never did. She helped remind me that a little pizazz is worth preserving – even just for yourself.

Maybe especially for yourself.

And Something Else

This brings me, finally, to a story.

For Christmas we gave my mother-in-law a Kindle. Setting it up, I asked Beth what Elaine’s Amazon password was.

“Wild Ones,” she answered.

“Wild Ones?!”

I didn’t know the wild one. I knew the devoted mother and grandmother, the mother-in-law whose love never wavered.

But then I thought about it: the big cruises, the big rings, the big husbands – her second, Lee, a former offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears.

I recalled the five books I loaded into the Kindle for Elaine – all mystery and detective stories, and that class picture from Northwestern Law School – with one female face staring out from a sea of men.

And it made sense.

Because in a life well-lived – an expansive life where you play many roles – a woman is many things. And if she’s smart, she keeps a little something to herself.

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Has an older woman provided you with valuable parenting or life lessons? Please share by commenting below!

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Photo Credits © Jennifer Hull, official family photographer

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About Jennifer

A former journalist for The Wall Street Journal and Time, Jennifer is the award-winning author of Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life and pens the MidAge Mom blog.

She’s profiled exceptional women from the Middle East to Latin America. Widely published, her essays have been included in two anthologies.

Jennifer is also a frequent radio and TV guest. Full Bio

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In Beyond One, Jennifer chronicles her leap from one child to two, describing the enormous impact the second child has on a woman’s body, marriage, family life, friendships and work.

"Hull is the kind of woman many moms long to be friends with. . ." -The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, CNN.com, MS., Parenting, Real Simple, Salon.com, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Working Mother, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, American Way, Brain, Child, The Christian Science Monitor, and more.