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A Mother’s Journey*

by Caryl S. Avery

In 1963, her husband was murdered while the world bore horrified witness; in 1964, she began rebuilding her family’s life. Since then, she has raised a son and daughter who would make any parent proud. How did she do it?

In the months following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, his widow was appalled by the crowds that gathered outside her Georgetown home, seeking a glimpse of Caroline and John-John. She knew that her two fatherless children had captured the heart of a nation, and that knowledge was frightening. “The world is pouring terrible adoration at the feet of my children, and I fear for them, for this awful exposure,” Jackie lamented to a friend, interior decorator Billy Baldwin. “How can I bring them up normally?”

Clearly, she found a way. At thirty-one, Caroline is a Columbia Law School graduate, the wife of artist/designer Edwin Schlossberg, and the mother of a baby girl. She can often be seen (but in her casual dresses and sneakers, she’s not likely to be noticed) pushing her baby carriage in New York’s Central Park. Across town, on the West Side, John, twenty-eight, bicycles or takes the subway to New York University Law School, where he’s completing his final year.

Of course, they are not angels: Caroline has been known to pull rank to get to the head of lines, while John is not above sending a stripper to “interview” with a friend who was looking for a secretary. But that seems to be about as bad as it gets. The two most celebrated Kennedy kids have, with the help of their mother, managed to avoid the drinking and drug problems that have plagued some of their cousins. The question is how.

For a woman of few words (she gives no interviews and surrounds herself with equally closemouthed friends), Jackie has revealed a great deal about her philosophy of mothering. From her comments and actions over the years, four principles emerge:

  1. Mothering is a do-it-yourself job. Although she was able to hire help—and did—Jackie never abandoned her children to nannies. “It isn’t fair to children in the limelight to leave them to the care of others and then to expect that they will turn out all right,” she has said.

  2. Love means getting tough when you have to. She has never been afraid to put her foot down with her kids. And she knows that while discipline is to be expected, it must be mixed with an equal dose of affection.

  3. A home is more than a house. “I want to give them some kind of sanctuary,” Jackie has said, “some place to take them into when things happen to them.”

  4. Children should be heard as well as seen. “The thing children need most is attention,” she has said. Jackie gave Caroline and John not only attention but the freedom to express their feelings.

A full-time mother

When she committed herself to mothering, Jackie was all too aware of the deficiencies in her own upbringing and in her husband’s. She was the product of a broken home, overindulged one minute and neglected the next. Jack grew up in a go-for-broke family where “Kennedys don’t cry,” where winning was everything. Of course, Jackie also recognized that their upbringing had bestowed on them certain assets: education, taste, courage and wit. And in her own parenting, she was determined to take the best from those backgrounds and leave (or make up for) the rest.

Having suffered a miscarriage early in her marriage and given birth to a stillborn baby girl in 1956, Jackie was all the more ecstatic at the birth of Caroline Bouvier Kennedy on November 27, 1957. “That child made all the difference in the world to her,” said a Georgetown friend. And so did John F. Kennedy, Jr., delivered on November 25, 1960, the first baby ever born to a President-elect of the United States and his wife.

Experts say that when a woman has had a great deal of difficulty bearing children, as Jackie did, the trauma can affect subsequent parenting in a number of ways. “She may overprotect them or spoil them, or even reject them, because of a heightened vulnerability to loss,” says Marilyn Ruman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Encino, California. “Or she may appreciate her children all the more and make them a priority.”

That seems to be what happened with Jackie: So much did she value her little ones that she vowed to play a major role in their lives despite the fact that it was customary for women of her class to leave their child raising to governesses. “If you bungle raising your children,” she said when she was First Lady, “I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” She insisted, “Children need their mother’s affection and guidance and long periods of time alone with her.”

Not that Caroline and John didn’t have a nanny; they did, a warm, older British woman named Maud Shaw. Yet Jackie always seemed to distinguish between caretaking and caring. It was fine to leave the dressing and driving to someone else. But when it came to real problem-solving, she wanted to be involved.

Jackie’s own biggest problem during the White House years—and afterward—was maintaining privacy for her children. She came up with some creative solutions. To ensure Caroline’s privacy, she established a school in the White House, with the help of Susan Wilson, a former Vassar College classmate. “I think the school was indicative of Jackie’s desire to create an environment where her children could have access to other kids,” says Wilson. Comprised of twenty-one students, the school occupied two rooms above the Oval Office; its students were the offspring of the President’s New Frontiersmen or personal friends of the Kennedys.

Most mornings when she was in town, the First Lady could be found there, watching the youngsters learn French or ballet positions. “Jackie had a knack with kids, all kids,” says one friend. Susan Wilson recalls: “She asked questions in a way that always elicited a response and explained things so they’d really understand.

“Her public persona is cool, cerebral. But you saw another side of her with children, especially her children. When she was with them, she showed an intense, loving concern. When you can make a child feel so precious to you, I think that’s what gives confidence and self-esteem.”

That doesn’t mean Jackie wasn’t a disciplinarian as well. “But she never criticized in a way that could really hurt,” says Wilson. That may have been in reaction to her own upbringing. After Jackie’s parents divorced, they competed fiercely for their daughter’s affection. For years it was no contest: The dashing “Black Jack” Bouvier had Jackie and her sister Lee on weekends and spoiled them royally. Perhaps resentful that Jackie preferred her father, her mother, Janet, became highly critical of her. It may well be that Jackie made a conscious effort not to repeat that destructive behavior.

Jackie may also have valued discipline because of the atmosphere created by her father’s drinking. “Generally speaking, in families where there is a problem drinker, discipline is not consistent, but dependent on the mood of that person,” says Maureen Dudley, supervisor of counselors at St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center, in Minneapolis. “And when you have inconsistent discipline, you have insecure children.” Having experienced insecurity herself, Jackie may have been all the more motivated to set firm boundaries for her own children.

On the other hand, there is evidence that she tried to avoid the trap her mother fell into of becoming the sole disciplinarian. So she was playful, too, with her children, hitching Caroline’s pony, Macaroni, to a sleigh and giving the children rides around the White House grounds.

Nor was Jackie the only one to join in child’s play. “The President always had the children come down to the Oval Office before they left for the day,” recalls broadcaster Sherrye Henry, whose daughter Elizabeth went to the White House school with Caroline. “He’d keep candy in his pockets, and if it was a pretty day, he’d lead them outside like the Pied Piper. Then he’d roll on the ground, and the children would tumble on top of him, digging in his pockets for the candy!”

That golden age came to an end on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was killed. Jackie, who had lost a newborn son, Patrick, just three months earlier, had now lost her husband. But even in the midst of her overwhelming grief, her first thought was of her children: She made sure they were told about their father’s death before they heard it from friends. “Your father has gone to look after Patrick,” their nanny told Caroline.

And she made sure the children had a chance to say good-bye. Before the funeral, the widow wrote a parting letter to her husband and told her daughter, “You must write a letter to Daddy now, and tell him how much you love him.” Caroline printed, “Dear Daddy: We are all going to miss you. Daddy I love you very much. Caroline.” Not old enough to write, John signed his sister’s letter with an X. The letters were placed in Kennedy’s coffin.

Healing the wounds

If Jackie helped the nation begin to heal on the day of Kennedy’s funeral, she did the same for her children. Having Caroline view her father’s coffin and John give his final salute served an important purpose. “Participating in such rituals reinforces at a crucial moment the sense of family, of togetherness, of belonging,” says Stanley Turecki, M.D., a child psychiatrist in New York City.

“When a mother can acknowledge her own sadness,” says Donald Cohen, M.D., a child analyst in New York City, “it allows her children to do that, too”—the first step in healing.

But Jackie also knew there must be a time for celebrating life. The day of the funeral was John Jr.’s third birthday. Although many people suggested that his party be postponed, his mother insisted that it be held as planned. Two days later, on Caroline’s birthday, Jackie gave another party, says Sherrye Henry. “Of course, all of us adults were in tears, but not Mrs. Kennedy. She did what I couldn’t have done.”

After moving back to Georgetown following the assassination, Jackie did everything possible to maintain continuity for her children. She asked JFK’s special assistant, Dave Powers, to come over every day and play soldier with John, as he used to in the White House. “He’ll remember his father through associations with people who knew Jack well,” Jackie said.

However, although Jackie had vowed after her husband’s death “to live in the places I lived with Jack,” she soon realized her family had to escape from the well-meaning but intrusive public of Washington, and the close-knit Kennedys as well. “Jackie understood the importance of creating a family unit apart from the larger Kennedy family,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a friend and author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (St. Martin’s Press, 1987). “She recognized that the children would get strength from the grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles, but it was growing up with a feeling of belonging to their own small family that would give them stability.” So in September 1964, the three moved to New York in search of normalcy and relative anonymity.

There, in her fifteen-room apartment overlooking Central Park, Jackie surrounded her children with interesting grown-ups. “It didn’t matter that Arthur Schlesinger or John Kenneth Galbraith was in the room; there was always a child in there listening,” says author George Plimpton, a frequent guest. “She had a way of igniting their intelligence.”

For the most part, however, the children’s days were filled with childish things. Jackie felt it was extremely important for John and Caroline to have friends and did everything she could to ensure that, encouraging them to invite their playmates home for dinner. She went to bat for Caroline when she learned her classmates at the Convent of the Sacred Heart weren’t inviting her to their parties. Jackie called the other mothers and told them she understood that they probably didn’t want it to seem as if they were inviting Caroline simply because she was famous. But “after all, Caroline’s only a little girl,” she said. After that, Caroline was always included.

John, meanwhile, was enrolled at Saint David’s, an elementary school for Catholic boys. “Mrs. Kennedy was a sensible, affectionate mom who had a straight relationship with her son,” recalls headmaster David Hume. “Some people coo over their children. But by the time children are seven or eight, you shouldn’t coo. When they reach out a hand, you should hold it. When they want to let go, you should let go. She understood that.”

A few years later, when Jackie decided to transfer John to Collegiate, a secular school, news reports said it was because Saint David’s wanted him to repeat second grade. A letter Hume sent to a magazine denying the rumor was never printed. That incident probably fueled Jackie’s resolve to keep her children out of the public eye.

Although some say John’s transfer to Collegiate was made at the urging of Jackie’s friends among the New York literati, others say it was in anticipation of “The Vows Heard Round the World”: her controversial marriage in October 1968 to the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

A search for security

By marrying Onassis, a divorced non-Catholic, Jackie risked excommunication. It is primarily for that reason, some say, that she sent John to Collegiate and later transferred Caroline from Sacred Heart to Brearley, a non-sectarian girls’ school. While Jackie may have wanted her children to have a secular education, she surely also wanted to spare them any taunting they might experience in Catholic schools while she was being castigated in the press as a public sinner.

Jackie was willing to endure such criticism herself, however, if her marriage to Onassis, twenty-nine years her senior, would give her children the security they needed. “I hate this country,” she said after Robert Kennedy was killed in June of that year. “I despise America. If they are killing Kennedys, my kids are the number-one targets. I want to get out of this country.” What better place to escape to than Onassis’s private island of Skorpios? Although Ari might have been ugly and vulgar in many eyes, he was also a billionaire and fulfilled the goals Jackie sketched in the 1951 book One Special Summer, written with her sister, Lee. In it, she envisions herself as the daughter of Charlemagne. She didn’t dream of herself as “Jacqueline Bouvier, editor,” says John H. Davis, Jackie’s cousin and author of The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster (McGraw-Hill, 1984), “but as a fairy-tale princess.”

As is typical, neither Onassis’s children nor Jackie’s were thrilled about the marriage. Again Jackie acted wisely by making it easy, though not imperative, for her kids to accept Onassis as a stepfather. She included them in the Greek Orthodox wedding service on Skorpios, but she made it clear that they would keep the Kennedy name and continue to live in New York. She and her husband agreed to spend only Catholic holidays and summers together—usually in Greece.

Despite her frequent trips abroad, Jackie was hardly an absentee mother. In New York, she helped her children daily with their homework and spent weekends horseback riding with them. She attended Caroline’s ballet classes and cheered her son on during his wrestling matches.

Because of his younger age, it was easier for John to relate to Ari as a stepfather. And it was more important, too, as far as his mother was concerned: She desperately wanted him to have a male role model.

As might be expected, Caroline had a harder time warming to Ari, and Jackie didn’t push her, perhaps because she remembered how she felt when her own mother remarried.

Old enough when her father died to have vivid memories of him, Caroline was the keeper of the flame. As a teenager, her room was a virtual shrine to JFK, filled with his pictures. When Jackie’s brother-in-law, Stash Radziwill, once suggested she encourage Caroline to take some of them down, Jackie said, “I couldn’t; I simply couldn’t.”

Finally, Caroline may have remained somewhat aloof from Onassis, despite his kindness to her, because she was old enough to catch headlines about his trysts with Maria Callas and Jackie’s jealous rages. Still, Caroline had enough fondness for Onassis to call him, unprompted, from boarding school as he lay dying in a Paris hospital.

Although the marriage was widely rumored to be headed for divorce when Onassis died in 1975, it had probably served the children well: It gave them, if not a father, a kindly grandfather figure; and it gave them time, during summers in Greece, to discover themselves away from not only the prying eyes of the public but also from the influence of their Kennedy cousins. What’s more, the $26 million settlement Jackie negotiated with Christina Onassis gave her family financial security for life.

Finding an identity

As her children grew, Jackie’s constant message to them was that they were John and Caroline first, Kennedys (or Bouviers) second. She sent them to boarding schools that were not “society schools” like Miss Porter’s, which she attended, but tough schools where they would be intellectually challenged. Instead of pressuring them to succeed, she helped them to do so. When John’s grades flagged, she sent him to a top adolescent psychiatrist in New York to get him back on track. And when he decided to go to Brown University instead of the Kennedys’ alma mater, Harvard, Jackie backed him. She was not interested in raising another JFK, but in raising his son.

She was just as interested, too, in helping Caroline find her own identity. Jackie may have been flattered indeed when, over the years, Caroline emulated her interest in riding, photography, journalism and the arts. Yet when her passion for ballet didn’t “take” in Caroline, Jackie didn’t force her. Nor did she force her to make a society debut, although in her time Jackie had been Debutante of the Year.

Says Dr. Turecki, “When it comes to things like ballet dancing versus horseback riding, I believe the personal preference of the child should be respected. We can say to our children, ‘It’s very important for you to have an interest or hobby,’ but we can’t dictate to them what it should be.”

That doesn’t imply, however, that parents don’t sometimes have to take a stand. Although Caroline and John were basically “good kids” throughout their rebellious years, they were normal adolescents: There was the joint birthday party at Le Club for John’s eighteenth and Caroline’s twenty-first that turned into a virtual brawl, and there was the time her mother ordered Caroline to leave Spain after hearing she was about to fight her first bull.

Jackie also reportedly objected strenuously to John’s interest in acting as a career; she felt it was undignified and potentially dangerous. When he co-starred—and won rave reviews—in a play at the Irish Arts Center, in New York, four years ago, his mother did not go, apparently to convey her displeasure. Such an action can be appropriate, says Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Weston, Massachusetts. “If you truly think your child is heading in the wrong direction, then not endorsing it is the only way to go. But it doesn’t have to mean your relationship is over; you simply agree to disagree.”

The freedom to express themselves openly is probably another reason that Jackie’s children have managed to avoid drinking and drug problems. “When children have no outlet for their feelings, that’s when they ‘medicate’ those feelings with pot, alcohol, or cocaine,” says Maureen Dudley, of St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center.

A happy family

If it all fell apart for the John F. Kennedys twenty-five years ago, today it has all come together. Jackie, no longer needing to be protected by a powerful man, has built herself a career in publishing since Onassis’s death. She has become a major force at Doubleday, responsible for a number of best-sellers, including the autobiographies of Michael Jackson and dancer Gelsey Kirkland. She also has a steady man in her life, financier Maurice Tempelsman. Since he’s married (although estranged from his wife), remarriage is unlikely. But so is the wagging of tongues; the public has finally accepted Jackie on her own terms.

And she accepts others on theirs. When Caroline announced her intention to marry Edwin Schlossberg—Jewish, artsy, unathletic, about as un-Kennedy as they come—Jackie welcomed him. Having recently baptized their daughter, Rose, in a Catholic ceremony attended by much of the Kennedy clan, Caroline and Ed say they will raise the little girl in the same low-key, loving way that Jackie raised her children. Meanwhile, Caroline will divide her time between practicing law and playing an active role in her father’s memorial, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

Her baby brother John will finish law school this spring—and follow in the family tradition of public service, by taking a $29,000-a-year job as an assistant prosecutor in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. It seems likely, too, that he will continue to make female hearts flutter. Although John (named “the sexiest man alive” by People magazine in 1988) does not appear to be the playboy his father was, he has been linked with an array of celebrities from Princess Stephanie to Madonna. Still, he generally has only one girlfriend at a time (for the last few years, it’s been actress Christina Haag, a Brown classmate).

At Caroline’s bridal dinner in l986, John stood up and talked about how pleased he was that Ed had asked him to be his best man. “All of our lives,” John said, “there’s just been the three of us—Mommy, Caroline and I; now there’s a fourth.”

Afterward, Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked to Jackie that she must be very proud of creating that bond between her children. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Jackie answered. “Being a mother is what I think has made me the person I am.”

*Originally published in Ladies Home Journal, March 1989.