I am the proud mum of two daughters — Natali and her big sister, Stefani, who most people call Lady Gaga (but I call Stefi) — and the profoundly proud daughter of the toughest, bravest, smartest, kindest woman in the world: my mum, Ronnie.
Ronnie, a fierce 90 years old, still goes to the gym more regularly than most people I know, and is still the person I turn to when I need advice. She is in very large part the reason I am who I am today, including the kind of mum I am.
Ronnie taught me that — first and foremost — it takes work to raise children that are genuinely kind, compassionate, accepting, and empathetic. She taught me that a parent should foster their children’s creativity and individuality and encourage their passions, not just their successes. And she taught me to be tough, that struggle was just a part of life, and that the best way to handle it is often to take a deep breath and move on.
In today’s vocabulary of child psychology, she taught me to be “gritty.”
Grit is certainly not a bad thing and for my mum, who experienced more than her fair share of struggle as a child, it was critical to her survival. She was born in 1928, in the midst of the Great Depression and as part of a generation where self-reliance and perseverance were often the only options. She was forced to live on her own at a very early age and sacrifice many of the things that we take for granted today, like education and career.
So, Ronnie was strong, she carried on no matter what life threw at her, and she always did the best that she could for her family, friends, and community. She passed those lessons about toughness down to her children, and my siblings and I are better for it in many ways.
By the time I became a mum myself, I had internalised these lessons thoroughly.
I understood that children can grow stronger by learning to manage and overcome the obstacles that they will inevitably encounter. Life is full of ups and downs, and our children do best not when they are shielded from that reality, but prepared for it and taught the skills they need to cope effectively.
When I could tell I wasn’t really helping but didn’t know how to do better, I would remind them, 'I didn’t get a user manual when you were born.'
I am so thrilled that my daughters have grown into tremendous women just as tough and caring as my mum, Ronnie. But, with the benefit of years lived and honest hindsight, I now understand that grit and resilience aren’t the only skills we need to impart to our children.
When my daughters were young and would try to tell me they were struggling emotionally, that they were feeling down or anxious, I would usually try to reassure them that everyone feels like that sometimes and that they would get over it. I would offer the suggestions we often give people on how they can make themselves feel better: “Get outside, you need some fresh air!”; “Just don’t dwell on it, you’ll feel better soon!”; “Make sure you’re getting enough sleep!”
I know that it wasn’t what my girls wanted to hear and I wished — I still wish — that I knew just what to say or do to make them feel better, to make all of their problems and pains disappear. But I didn’t, and sometimes the words I did find or the actions I made weren’t the right ones.
In these moments, when I could tell I wasn’t really helping but didn’t know how to do better, I would remind them, “I didn’t get a user manual when you were born.”
My husband and I tried our best (and still do!) to be deeply loving and attentive parents, who made sure we had regular family dinners and spent hours talking with our children. But, for all of that communication, we still didn’t really understand exactly what they needed sometimes.
Like many parents, I didn’t know the difference between normal adolescent development and a mental health issue that needed to be addressed, not just waited out. I mistook the depression and anxiety my children were experiencing for the average, if unpleasant, moodiness we all associate with teenagers. I was drawing on the lessons I had been given myself growing up and passing on those same tools, without understanding their inadequacy for the specific challenges my children were facing.
As mums, we might not get it perfect every time. We have to work with the information and skills we have, shaped by our own experiences, just like everyone else. But we try, and with time and a little luck, we keep getting better.
We teach our children and, in turn, they teach us.
My daughters have taught me how to listen more genuinely, how to ask for help when you need it, how to care for mental and physical wellness in equal measure, and a thousand other things large and small. I know, as a family, we’ll continue to learn from one another, making each other wiser and stronger by sharing lessons not just from one generation to the next, but between generations.
I’m so fortunate for the ways that I have been shaped by both my own mother and by being a mother, and I am so very lucky to call myself Natali and Stefani’s mum and Ronnie’s daughter.
Cynthia Germanotta co-founded Born This Way Foundation with her daughter Lady Gaga in 2012. BTWF’s mission is to support the wellness of young people and empower them to create a kinder and braver world.
Read these stories next: