How a Painful Childhood Made Me a Better Mom

By learning from her parents’ mistakes, Esther Wojcicki raised three of the most successful women in the United States

Credit: alicemoi/Getty Images

We all tend to parent the way we were parented, but when I became a mother, the one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of my parents.

As Russian Jewish immigrants who came to this country with nothing, my parents were always on the verge of financial ruin. My father was an artist, but beyond that, he had few skills. Eventually, he was forced to take a job as a gravestone cutter, one he kept for the rest of his life. You can still see hundreds of the gravestones he made in cemeteries all over Los Angeles — the only artistic legacy he ever left.

The work was grueling and the pay low, and at night, he would come home, slam the door, and proceed to stomp around the small house, saying nothing. It always scared me. I learned to stay away from him. If I didn’t, I’d be caught in the middle of a firestorm. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is something he said to me often, and he meant it.

My mother did her best to protect me from his outbursts, and sometimes she even bought me my favorite foods — green Jell-O and canned apricots — rare treats that became our little secret. At night, I’d sit in my room and listen to them fight. Always, always about money.

The most difficult part of my life was dealing with the Orthodox tradition that deemed men the most important members of the family. The importance of men was dramatically illustrated to me when my brother Lee was born on May 23, 1945, three days before my fifth birthday. My parents brought him home on my birthday, and I could hardly contain my excitement when my father opened the door and led my mother inside. He was holding a basket, and inside was my new little brother. I thought of him as my own special gift. I ran forward, wanting to see him up close, but my father caught me by the shoulder and pushed me back.

“Your brother Lee is a boy,” he said plainly, “and in our family, boys are more important.”

“Don’t get too close to the baby,” he scolded. “You could make him sick.” I stopped in my tracks, more confused than hurt. My mother stood there, silent.

Then my father told me something that still shocks me to this day. “Your brother Lee is a boy,” he said plainly, “and in our family, boys are more important.”

He delivered this news as if he had no understanding of how it might affect me. Even now, it’s hard for me to imagine someone saying that to a young child. At first, I didn’t really understand what he meant — that now I would be second in line — but I knew it wouldn’t be good. Prior to Lee’s birth, I had been the darling of the family, the only child and the center of attention, even if that attention was sometimes negative. But I quickly learned how this would play out.

Lee’s needs were prioritized over mine. He got dozens of toys when I got none. He got new clothing instead of hand-me-downs from our cousins in New York. He could eat all he wanted at dinner, while I was reprimanded for taking too much food.

Looking back, I realize I wasn’t bothered as much as you might expect. Part of what helped me cope was the constant love of my mother; she was patient, never critical, and she made me feel important despite what my father had said. I also genuinely liked Lee. He was a very cute baby, and it was fun to play with him. He was like a life-sized doll for me, and I enjoyed helping my mother and feeling like a useful member of the family.

As I got older, I was expected to do almost everything on my own, because resources were limited and all the attention was focused on Lee. But even this was a blessing in disguise, because I became unintentionally empowered from so much independence. I learned how to do the laundry, wash the dishes, clean the house, cook meals for Lee, run errands, make the beds, and sweep the floors and carpets (we didn’t have a vacuum).

I grew up thinking I could do anything. Meanwhile, Lee grew up thinking he always needed help and support. He was pampered to the point of paralysis, an unintentional consequence of all that devotion.

In 1948, my parents had another son, David, which put even more financial stress on the family. He was a beautiful baby, with bright blond hair and translucent blue eyes. I remember him being very curious and that he cried a lot. My mother was overwhelmed by taking care of three children, and she couldn’t always meet David’s needs. I did my best to help her. I played with him and carried him around the house and backyard. I showed him my favorite pepper tree near the creek and told him that, in a few years, I’d teach him how to climb it.

One day, when David was 16 months old, he was playing on the kitchen floor and came across a bottle of aspirin. He thought it was a toy and started shaking it. Out came dozens of pills (this predated safety caps), and he swallowed all of them before my mother realized what had happened.

She called the doctor’s office. The nurse told her to put David to bed and check on him in a few hours. (We had only one car, which was with my dad at work.) I suspect this nurse didn’t offer a better answer because we couldn’t pay the full rate at the clinic. My mother did just as she was told. A few hours later, David woke up vomiting.

We then took him to the county hospital, where they pumped his stomach and released him. He got worse. We took him back. They told us there were “no beds available” (code for “no proof of payment”). So we took him to another hospital, where they also claimed they had no beds, and then to another, at which point he was in such bad shape that the doctors agreed to treat him. But it was too late: David died there that night.

When I think of my childhood, the most powerful emotion I have is the pain of this loss, how it covered our house like a black cloud, how my parents never really recovered, especially my mother. David’s death affected me like no other event in my childhood. Except one.

A few months after David’s death, my brother Lee, who was five at the time, fainted and collapsed on the living room floor. My mother picked him up and shook him, but he didn’t wake up. Within minutes, I started to feel faint too. At that point, my mother was smart enough to run out of the house, but she told me to stay put. “Lie down on the bed, and I’ll come and get you,” she said, rushing Lee outside.

I was woozy and disoriented, but I refused to listen to her. Already my skepticism was taking over. I held on to the walls for support, and once I was out of the house, I lay down on the gravel in our front yard and started to come to. I saw my mother sitting with Lee on the concrete strip of our driveway. He had also woken up. But we still had no idea what was happening.

My mother called a neighbor, and after a few more hours, it was determined that our faulty wall heater had filled the building with carbon monoxide. Lee was the smallest and most vulnerable, so he fainted first. I would have been next, and had I stayed there on the bed like I’d been told, I wouldn’t have survived.

That incident, together with the tragedy of David’s death, set me on a course that deeply influenced the rest of my life. It made me resolve to think for myself no matter what. I would always ask what was sensible, even if it sounded wrong, even if I had to challenge my parents or my teachers. I felt I needed to do it. If I didn’t, I could be injured or even killed — that’s how serious it was to me.

Our goal is not to create a stress-free and hardship-free environment for our children. The painful and difficult experiences are often how we grow.

I didn’t blame my mother for being obedient. It wasn’t her fault that David died or that she didn’t think to get us all out of the house in a moment of clear danger. Yet, in a way, it was her fault, or at least that’s how I saw it as a child. She was a victim of poverty, and she was an immigrant with little education. She’d never been taught how to think things through, and she blindly trusted authority because of the tradition she was brought up in, just like many people at that time. But listening and obeying and not thinking critically led to the greatest loss a parent can endure.

I decided I wanted to live a different kind of life. I wanted a life where girls and boys were treated equally. I wanted a life in which I could make smart decisions and didn’t always have to worry about money. I wanted out of the world I’d been born into, and I resolved to do it by thinking for myself.

When I became a mother myself, none of the parenting advice I received from friends or the experts I read made any sense until I found Dr. Spock, the parenting guru of the 1960s, and his iconic book, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. His message resonated with me from the start. He told me and thousands of other new mothers:

You know more than you think you do… You want to be the best parent you can be, but it is not always clear what is best. Everywhere you turn there are experts telling you what to do. The problem is, they don’t often agree with each other. The world is different from how it was twenty years ago, and the old answers may not work anymore.

I read that passage and felt as if he was speaking directly to me. The old answers didn’t work for me. The religion and culture I grew up in didn’t value me as a human being. Experts and authority figures didn’t have my best interests at heart. I was the only one who knew what was right for my daughters, what was right for me.

We each have a story. We all have experienced trauma and, in many cases, tragedy. I resolved to do the best I could to not recreate my childhood, but I also understood that my children would face difficulties no matter what I did. It wasn’t my job to be perfect or make their lives perfect, but to do my own reflection and spare them any unnecessary suffering.

Our goal is not to create a stress-free and hardship-free environment for our children. The painful and difficult experiences are often how we grow. Our goal is not to take these challenges and the growth that results from them away from our children — the fatal flaw of helicopter parenting — but to help our children face these challenges and learn from them.

I wanted my daughters to have some control early on, and I was determined to develop their decision-making skills. I was always asking, “Do you want grapes or an apple?” “Do you want to do an art project or play outside?” I helped them become skillful decision-makers from a very young age, and now, some 40 years later, I’m in awe as I watch them make some of the most complicated and important decisions in health care and media.

Parenting is how culture gets transmitted to the next generation. It’s your chance to pass on your core principles and values and to use all of your wisdom and insight in order to improve someone else’s life. It’s also your chance to affect eternity. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes about the art of teaching: “Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” The same is true for parenting. You never know how your parenting will impact future generations.

Excerpted from HOW TO RAISE SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE: Simple Lessons for Radical Results by Esther Wojcicki. Copyright © 2019 by Esther Wojcicki. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and U.K. edition available via Hutchinson. All rights reserved.

Educator, journalist, IT & OER consultant

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