Biological ties and shared memories don’t always guarantee a blissful connection between parents and their kids. For these Main Line mothers and daughters, however, true friendship came with relative ease. Sure, there was some work to do—and one way or another, they’ve learned the difference between loving and liking someone. But in the end, they’ve attained what many of us have been striving for since birth: a sense of belonging, of being loved for who they are.
“I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all parenting,” says Susan Whiteley.
She is the mother of three daughters: Dana, 21, Lynn, 19, and Paige, 16—all with distinct personalities and needs. But now that Dana and Lynn have settled into college life, Susan has been privy to a wealth of one-on-one time with her youngest daughter, something both have grown to appreciate. And because Paige will be driving soon and gaining a new level of independence, it’s also something neither takes for granted.
Being an only child for the time being has afforded Paige a unique opportunity. While she’s under the microscope more than usual, there are benefits to having her parents to herself. Recently, Paige and her mom took a trip together—something they’d never done before, aside from going to Ontario, Canada, where her dad’s family owns a summer home. And since both Mom and Dad are motivated and talented cooks, not only does she have more than her fair share of good eats, she also gets to learn all their culinary secrets while playing sous chef. One of her favorite dishes to prepare—and eat—is truffle risotto.
Both Susan and her husband, Chip, comment on their daughter’s newfound maturity now that her sisters are gone, acknowledging that Paige has had to learn to communicate better with adults since she can’t disengage from her parents and their friends by joking and fighting with her siblings.
Initially, Paige worried about being the center of attention. But as time went on, she embraced it. “I’ve always been close with my mom,” she says. “But as I’ve gotten older, it’s on a different level because I’ve become more aware of how hard she works, of how much she puts into everything she does—her job, her family. She’s all over the place, yet she’s so calm about everything.”
When her friends come over, Paige makes a point to show them what’s new in her mother’s garden—and that means a lot to Susan. For years, gardening was just a hobby. Then one day, she decided to “go for it,” as Paige puts it. Now Susan has a booming business, Garden Views.
“I’ve definitely grown this huge respect,” says Paige of her mom’s enterprise. “She didn’t even figure out what she wanted to do until she was in her mid-30s. She’s taught me to go for what I want. It’s never too late.”
One of the things that kept the ties strong over the years was family dinners. “We always had a sit-down together,” says Susan. “That was where all the communication came from. Always, someone would ask a leading question to reveal some scoop. We solved a lot of our family issues at the dinner table, and we had a lot of laughs. Dinner was incredibly important. I tried hard to schedule extracurricular activities so they wouldn’t interfere with meal time.”
Paige seconds the importance of dinners with the family. “Sitting down and talking at the end of the day has helped us bond,” she says. “I think it’s something all parents should do.”
Summers in Canada also had a major impact on the Whiteleys, both individually and collectively. “It’s an island,” says Susan. “There’s nothing to do if you don’t come up with it. You have to be comfortable with solitude. Even I had a hard time adjusting, but now I can truly appreciate it.”
In Canada, Paige learned to fish and play poker, and made daredevil leaps off the rocks into a chilly lake with her sisters and friends. “There’s no doubt in my mind that all of our experiences in Canada helped with the girls’ confidence levels and gave them a sense of belonging,” says Susan.
“Keeping Canada together takes a lot of work,” says Paige. “We all love it, so we work hard to keep it together. We’re all really happy when we’re there.”
One of the things Paige admires most about her mom is her ability to comfortably converse with strangers. “She’s so outgoing,” says Paige. “I think I got a little bit of that from her. She’s a happy person, and so am I. I worry a little bit, too—but I’m nowhere close to my mom.”
Is there anything Paige would change about her mother? “I want her to stop worrying; it keeps her up at night,” she says. “She wants to please everyone. She needs to worry more about making herself happy.”
For her part, Susan is in awe of her daughter’s outlook on life. “Paige radiates a sense of well-being that I feel often, but I don’t feel all the time. I don’t have the sense of optimism she has,” Susan says. “I never had the chance to get comfortable because we were always moving. All my kids had the advantage of living in the same place their whole lives.”
Phyllis Beck and her daughter Alice Beck Dubow
A Tale of Two Judges
The youngest of four, Alice Beck Dubow has never strayed far from her parents’ Wynnewood home. And there’s no doubt her mother adores her.
“She was the youngest, my last,” says Phyllis Beck, a retired judge and legal counsel for the Barnes Foundation. “She was always a good kid—smiley and easy.”
Alice, 41 and living in Center City, has equal affection for her mother, whom she regards as a pioneer for pursuing a career in law at a time when staying at home was the widely accepted protocol. “I was one of the few kids who had a mother that worked,” she says. “I was always proud of her, although I didn’t always appreciate that uniqueness until later, when I was in high school and college.”
Phyllis’ ambitions no doubt came from her own mother, who shared a business with her father. Being a working mom wasn’t as unusual to her as it was to her peers, most who were doing things she wasn’t interested in. “Even though I worked, we ate dinner together every night, and all my kids knew that I was passionately interested and in love with them,” she says.
“Mom didn’t listen to societal influences,” says Alice. “She didn’t try to make us conform to any vision of who she thought we should be, so we never had to worry about turning into trophy children. What I remember more than anything is that our house was intellectually driven. The only direction she pushed us in was toward developing our minds.”
Phyllis never viewed herself as a helicopter parent. Being a lawyer in Philadelphia, she had a better perspective than most on the trouble kids could get into. It was easy for her to separate the little stuff from the big stuff. She trusted her daughter to make good choices, make mistakes and recover.
“I always aimed to let my kids be who they were, but I didn’t try to be their friend,” Phyllis says. “We were always affectionate with each other—a little hugging goes a long way. I did put pressure on all of the kids to work hard, but never to get a particular grade or make a certain team.”
“There were no silly rules,” adds Alice. “So I didn’t have much to rebel against. But there were clear expectations to be independent and do well in school—and to be a Democrat. Learning to take risks was something I greatly benefited from. It gave me the luxury to do things without having to be a superstar.”
There is only one time Alice and Phyllis can remember ever being at odds. “Alice wanted to go on a teen tour one summer,” says Phyllis.
“It was expensive,” interjects Alice. “And a lot of the other teens going on the trip were pretty well-off. Mom was worried that I’d come home more materialistic than when I’d left.”
In June 2007, Alice was appointed to a seat on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, making her and her mom the first mother-daughter judges in the state’s 231-year history.
“That period of time was insane for all of us,” says Phyllis, who gets no argument from her daughter.
Even though she’d decided to run a year-and-a-half prior, Alice gave herself just six months to pull a campaign team together. “I talked to my mom five times a day,” she says. “She was my closest advisor.”
“It was a great experience being part of the democratic process,” says Phyllis. “Even if Alice didn’t win, the journey was incredibly interesting. I went to an Ivy League school and realized that it didn’t matter. I defined myself by what I achieved—but more so, what’s inside of me. I raised my children to do the same.”
The importance of being loyal to each other and staying connected ranks high in the family’s value system. “We’re close-knit,” says Alice. “We all like each other, and we’re not competitive. We all went in different directions, but we always had respect for what the other was doing. I think that starts from the top down. Our parents didn’t view the world as a competition.”
These days, Alice and Phyllis chat once a week and maintain a strong intellectual connection. They’re both interested in politics and city government, and they share a love of books, movies and opera. And as they get older, they’re beginning to realize their likes and dislikes are more common than ever.
In June, they’ll join the rest of the women in their family at Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Ariz., for an annual girls’ getaway that’s an 18-year tradition. It’s during these trips that they truly realize how much they’ve learned from each other.
“The learning goes both ways,” says Phyllis. “Alice has taught me to be tolerant of all kinds of relationships outside our nuclear family, and to open my mind.”
In turn, Alice admires her mother’s willingness to be non-conformist—and what it took to be a lawyer in the ’60s, when there were so few females in the field. “She had it much harder than I did,” Alice admits.
Probably the biggest thing they’ve both learned is to accept people for who they are. “If you want to have a relationship, you have to figure out what you can change,” says Alice. “Which is very little.”
Look for Part 2 of “The Ties That Bind,” focusing on fathers and stepfathers, in the June issue of Main Line Today.