Mother's day every day

When Imogene Moore Peterson teaches a young mother about parenting, she gains a 'daughter'

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May 09, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Armed with potato salad, making the annual Mother's Day trek to her mother's home with her grown children, Imogene Moore Peterson expects she'll start worrying about the rest of her "kids."

Are they treating themselves to something special today? Will someone watch their babies so they can get their hair done? Are they using the bath and body lotions she gave them? Have they displayed the beautiful Mother's Day cards they helped their toddlers make? Will they acknowledge their own motherhood with satisfaction? With pride?

She's thinking about the children her career has brought her. As a case worker for Casey Family Services in East Baltimore, Peterson shows young mothers -- most of them teen-agers, most of them single -- how to be better parents. She believes motherhood is one of life's most challenging roles, but one that everyone can learn.

In the process of demonstrating that principle, this mother of two sons has gained scores of daughters. Some of her young mothers have finished high school, gone to college, bought cars, found rewarding work as nursing assistants. Others must contend with drug-addicted relatives as well as fussing babies.

"No matter what the situation, I try to look at the person, to think, 'How did she get where she is?' " Peterson says. "I think the people you meet are all lessons in your life."

Somehow, with her quick smile and sympathetic eyes, eyes so big they can swallow your troubles, this petite and stylish woman manages to make her clients enthusiastic about parenting.

Twenty-year-old Tunishia Jackson loves giving "Miss Peterson" detailed updates about Ji-shea, her 10-month-old daughter. The social worker began visiting Jackson when she was pregnant, came to the hospital while she was recuperating from a premature delivery, then drove her to the neonatal intensive care unit every day so she could get to know her tiny child.

Peterson provided her with books and pamphlets about preemies, explaining why it was a bad idea for a mother to sleep in the same bed as her daughter. She told Jackson that once her baby started eating, she'd be a good sleeper.

At birth, Ji-shea weighed 4 pounds, 4.1 ounces. Now she weighs 22 pounds, 6 ounces.

"Miss Peterson's more like a friend than a worker," Jackson says. "She always asks what's been going on, what's new and is there anything I want to tell her. ... She's taught me that no matter if the father is there, she's still my child and I've got to take the time with her and teach her stuff that will affect her life."

Miss Peterson also reminds Jackson how important it is to talk to her child. Many of her new mothers struggle to master the monologues of motherhood. Some must even make a conscious effort to speak directly to their infants.

Peterson energetically shows them how. During home visits, she plops down on the floor, claps, sings, makes lots of noise and demonstrates how to thoroughly engage children.

"Here's the ball. You want the ball? Say ball! Ball! Yaaaay! Yaaaay," she coos while exaggerated delight stretches her delicate features.

Peterson, who is 56, has now spent close to 40 years in social work and community service. The long line of young parents she has mothered stretches back to the family-planning centers of the 1960s. The Rev. Milton Williams of New Life Evangelical Baptist Church calls her his associate pastor because of her tireless volunteering. She has become a respected mentor in her field.

But whenever she makes a home visit, her world shrinks to a small square of carpeting, a book, a rubber ball, a young mother and a babbling toddler with something on his mind. Nothing is more important than demonstrating how to talk the talk. And although it's not listed on her resume, Peterson is fluent in baby-speak. She excels at that language of gesture, repetition, rhythm and tone of voice that is so loud, so embarrassing, so uncool, so motherly -- and so exquisitely designed to introduce new humans to the feast of life.

As the oldest of 13 children, you might say Peterson was born to her profession. She grew up in East Baltimore in a two-bedroom apartment watching her mother, Ora Jones, cook three meals a day on a potbellied stove and scrub diapers on a washboard. Later she watched her return to school so that she could find a job that would support her children when her husband died young.

William Jones, Peterson's father, was a World War II veteran, a postman and a part-time cab driver. Imogene remembers her family as poor -- there was no gas or electricity, no telephone when she was little -- and there wasn't much room to spare; a new baby might sleep in a bureau drawer. But somehow, everything worked the way it was supposed to, thanks to the steady hands of her parents.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in the mid-'60s, she found fulltime work at the Community Action Agency Neighborhood Family Planning Center, a program born from the federal War on Poverty campaign.

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