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I Learned How to Be a Better Mother From a Mom Who Hasn’t Parented in Person in 13 Years

I called her the baby whisperer. *Ana had a way of keeping our then 18-month-old daughter, Delfina, content and quiet, while my husband and I began to work from home last year at the start of the pandemic. This was no easy task with a fiercely independent, headstrong toddler beginning to really stretch her legs (literally, she’s a climber). Just as our daughter was wanting to explore the world, it was shutting down with stay-at-home orders.

Ana was a God-send. She had worked as a housekeeper, cleaning my sister’s house for years, when we met her. She came on board as a temporary babysitter while we hunkered down in North Carolina, where we rode out the national lockdown in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak.

It was the start of quarantine life for us and a new phase for Delfina — the throw-myself-on-the-ground-and-flail-and-kick-to-get-what-I-want phase. When Delfina started to scream and perform one of these break-dancing fits, Ana would gently pick her up and hold her tight, calming her instantly. “I hold her tight when she feels out of control,” she said. Our daughter could only say a handful of words, but Ana spoke her language.

When Delfina was frustrated and would throw a toy or start to lose it because she couldn’t figure something out, Ana would whisper in her ear, and whatever frustration Delfina was experiencing seemed to magically melt away. As Delfina was developing new, hard-to-understand emotions, Ana was tuned in and helped her regain tranquility.

The calm, respectful, understanding way that Ana talked to Delfina to help her get a hold of these overwhelming emotions became my model for how I wanted to approach the next year of her life. Watching her watch my daughter, I had an epiphany: Parenting is about taking cues from your child as much as it is about guiding them.

Or as Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently put it in an interview with Parents“We have to listen to who our children are, rather than setting in our minds who we want them to be. We have to do more listening and watching, as we do guiding and directing. And that is admittedly a hard thing to do as a parent.”

It sounds silly that I even have to say this, but with all the responsibilities I have to myself and family — a high-pressure job, maintaining relationships with my husband, family, and friends, making time to exercise — plus all the other distractions of modern mom life, it’s hard to always be in tune what’s happening in my daughter’s little world.

From sleep-training books to apps tracking developmental leaps to potty-training guides, there are all sorts of manuals to give parents insights, tricks and tools to help our little ones through each new stage, but sticking to these manuals too much can disconnect you from reality. At the end of the day, no expert’s advice can make up for your own intuition and connection with your child. As a type-A career woman, that’s something I have learned the hard way — and I never imagined that a mother who hadn’t seen her children in person in 13 years would be the one to teach me.

As the rest of us have collectively bemoaned this seemingly endless pandemic and become anxious and depressed at not being able to see our parents or the light at the end of the tunnel, that’s been Ana’s life now for more than 13 years. Zoom birthdays and facetime visits with family — this “new” way of connecting with loved ones — has long been the norm for Ana. She has virtually parented her youngest, a daughter named Cristina, since she was 4, along with her three older boys. Cristina is now a teenager.

While Ana’s kids focus on studying, they haven’t lost hope that they will be able to see their mother in person again one day, and she hasn’t either. Regardless, that hasn’t stopped her from sharing her parenting lessons — with them and, in a different way, with me.

Screen time is the only way she has been able to see her kids, love them, and teach them things. One day last spring, I entered the kitchen and crashed one of Ana’s daily facetime calls. “Hello! It’s so nice to meet you. Your mom talks about you so much. She’s so proud of you,” I told Cristina, who lives in El Salvador with her brothers. Her pretty, heart-shaped face and bright smile beamed out from Ana’s iPhone screen. The love and respect between them was palpable through the long-distance connection. Her kids listened to her, as she offered them advice and consolation. I’ve been listening too. Listening and watching.

There’s no “vaccine” that’ll cure her situation and reunite her family. But the thought of one day being able to hug them again keeps her going. I must admit, I don’t think I would be as happy, strong, and hopeful if I weren’t able to see my child for years on end. Her strength inspires me, and her experience guides me.

And so now, when I see Delfina starting to get frustrated about not being able to do what she wants to do and having to go along with the day’s plan, I kneel down to her level and whisper into her ear where we are going and why. And just like that, she looks up and her emotions start to shift. She gets it.

*Ana’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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