When Colleen von Ohlen climbs aboard the family’s Wave Runner and “blasts across the lake with her hair on fire,” according to her husband, Robert, she has her children to thank.
The Lake Forest mother of three who once declared to her husband, “Robert, we will never own a boat,” experienced a change of perspective, brought on by three of the people she loves most in the world.
“I have been surprised by how much my children teach me,” Colleen said. “I have learned to see things differently because of them and have also done things I never would have thought I would even try. I now drive a Wave Runner, have a real appreciation for karate and am becoming more technologically savvy because of them.”
Children Transform Mothers
It’s an irony faced by mothers around the world who find their lives transformed by their children.
In Colleen’s case, the road to this transformation was initially rocky. “It was much more difficult being a stay-at-home mom when my eldest, Max, was born 17 years ago,” she explained.
“I greatly missed my career at the Illinois Attorney General's office. I was alone in a high rise with an infant in the city. It was really hard when my husband travelled overseas for long business trips. My family is all out east, and I felt very alienated.”
Life improved significantly when Colleen and Robert moved to Lake Forest 16 years ago, when she was pregnant with her second child, Grace.
“I made friends with my neighbors and eventually with the mothers of my children's classmates. I was also lucky that my two best friends from law school eventually settled in Lake Forest and Highland Park,” Colleen said.
The von Ohlen family has since grown to three children – Max, 17, and Grace, 15, attend Lake Forest High School, while Blaise, 10, is at Deer Path Middle School. Colleen’s husband, Robert, manages his own law firm, Robert C. von Ohlen & Associates in Chicago.
Robert credits the couple’s complementary parenting styles in making the von Ohlen household run smoothly.
“Colleen is a morning person and I am a night owl,” Robert said. “Thus, we handle different parenting shifts. She is also more of the enforcer, which allows me to be more of a philosopher. She says this is not fair, and she is probably right.”
He added, “When we had our children and settled into our roles, we agreed that Colleen was in charge of the many day to day small decisions that confront us, and I was in charge of the big decisions. Of course, in our 20 years of marriage we have yet to have a big decision!”
The culinary demands of mothering transformed Colleen, as well. “The girl I married could barely boil water,” Robert said. “Now she is a gourmet cook who provides healthy, varied meals to her crew.”
Blaise is particularly thrilled with his mother’s conversion, saying, “I'd really like to thank my mom for making spectacular meals.”
“Parenting three kids is tough business and I am lucky to have a good partner in undertaking the most important thing we will ever do,” Robert said.
Mothering as ‘Competitive Sport’
Colleen doesn’t attempt to sugar coat the challenges of motherhood. Even with the support of other parents, Colleen said, “I had no idea how time intensive it would be.”
In addition, Colleen said today’s mothers are pressured by the “feeling that you never ‘mother’ well enough.” She explained, “There are so many divergent views of parenting out there... helicopter mothers, tiger mothers… Sometimes, mothering can feel like a competitive sport.”
Colleen turns to an inner strength to combat these pressures. “I guess I just try to do the best I can, using my faith and core values as my guide. I hope I can learn from my mistakes and mother each of my three children in the way that enables them to grow into kind and loving adults,” she said.
Colleen’s Catholic faith is an essential element of her mothering, according to Robert. “Colleen has a very strong faith and she really tries to live it. She has imparted this to our children and it is a beautiful gift that will hopefully last a lifetime,” he said.
She puts her faith to work at parish in Lake Forest, where she serves as a member of the Parish Council and as a catechist.
Being ‘There’ For Children – and Mom
Colleen also turns to the guidance of her own mother –who raised six children – for guidance in her parenting.
“I am in awe of all she did for us,” Colleen said of her mother. “She was always there for us, and I learned from her how important it is to be there for your children.”
The von Ohlen children are fully aware of -- and grateful for – their mother’s commitment to them. Grace said, “My mom is special from others moms in that she lets us know that she will always be there to support us. It's very comforting to know that, and not every kid can say that their mother would say the same.”
And, their mother’s nurturing example has taught the von Ohlen children to nurture in return. Max explained, “If my mom is going through a hard time, for whatever reason, I often times talk to her, reassure her that I am here for her. I also want her to know that I can help her whenever she feels overwhelmed in her work.”
Independence was a key ingredient of Colleen’s upbringing, and she has passed that skill on to her own children. She said one of her mom’s favorite proverbs was, “Don't do for your children what they can do for themselves," and Colleen has taken the message to heart.
“At times, it would be much easier and quicker if I just ‘did it myself,’ but that would deprive my children of accomplishing things themselves. Each of my three children can cook, clean a bathroom and dial customer assistance if they have a problem with their computer. I feel pretty good about that,” she says with a smile.
And while she engenders independence in her brood, Colleen remains her children’s fiercest advocate and encourages other mothers to do the same.
“Never be afraid to stand up for them. It is your duty and honor to do so,” she urged.
The Lake Forest mom puts her words into action, especially for her son, Max, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when he was 6 years old. She has worked with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, utilized her legal background to serve as an advocate for children with diabetes and has been the captain of the family’s “To The Max For A Cure” team, which has raised more than $70,000 to find a cure for the disease.
Cabin Brings Family Together
Colleen and her mother also share thoughts on how significantly motherhood – and parenting in general – has changed over the years.
Colleen points specifically to influences on children from exposure to media and the Internet. She explained, “This can be challenging, especially when the media espouses values that are opposed to your families’. Today's mothers face challenges with that every day.”
Lack of family and free time is another area of concern for today’s families, according to Colleen. “Families have so much less time together than in years past… there's not a lot of ‘down time’ anymore,” she said.
The von Ohlen remedy for this problem is a cozy cabin in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Colleen mused, “My husband and I have found an amazing remedy to our children's over-scheduled school year...we retreat to our cabin in Wisconsin over the summer. We have no cable and only this year did we break down and get Internet. We have ‘good old fashioned’ family time...playing cards, sitting around the campfire, fishing, boating and just being together.”
Girlfriends Help Keep You ‘You’
When it comes to doling out motherly advice – especially to new mothers – Colleen stresses the importance of nourishing female friendships.
“My friends have been a great source of strength to me over the years,” she said. “They help keep you ‘you’. Girlfriends are excellent therapy...we help each other through the hard times and celebrate with each other through the good ones, too. Even though it's hard, it's so important to continue to make time for your friends. I have been seen crossing the street in my pajamas after the bus takes the kids to share a cup of coffee with my friends.”
The von Ohlen family will spend Mother’s Day simply, giving mom some R&R.
“I think the rarest gift you can give a mother of three is a day off,” Robert said.
Blaise will make his famous chocolate chip pancakes and serve them to mom in bed with her favorite coffee. The family will attend Mass at St. Patrick’s and prepare dinner while Colleen settles into a comfy chair with a good book.
“It (motherhood) is what I anticipated it to be, plus a whole lot more,” Colleen reflects. I did have a sense that it would become my ‘greatest job’.”