What my mom taught me

As Mother’s Day 2020 approaches, I naturally think about the role motherhood has played in my life. I became a mom nearly 20 years ago. Prior to that day, if you would have asked me if my mother loved me I would have said “sure” and not given it another thought. It was only after having my own children that I realized the depth, breadth and unshakable commitment with which my mother loved me. Because now I was in that very special sisterhood.

Becoming a mother undeniably changes your life. No more late nights out, sleeping in the next day past noon. No skipping a real breakfast in favor of coffee and a newspaper. And there’s always someone(s) you have to think about before yourself. Sounds like a bummer, but that could not be further from the truth.

There must be an upside to motherhood, or where would the human race be? Surely the numbers would be trending down. But if you’re a mother you’ve probably already unlocked the secrets that come with entry to this club. There’s an indescribable joy in watching your children grow into happy, funny, independent beings. There’s also an immediate visceral reaction to any threats to your kids, real or perceived. Over the years, this new definition of “mother” will often outweigh (or at least compete with) your previously known definition of “woman” or “sister” or even “wife”. But those who already love you in those roles understand that this evolution is expanding the definition of you, not just changing it. Odds are, they’ll love your children as well and the definition of who they are may also evolve.

During the first few years of motherhood, I’d regularly reach out to my mom for advice. “Why is this baby crying?” “Why won’t she eat her pureed green beans?” “What should I do with her hair?”

My mother was happy to share her opinions and answers to any questions. After all, my two daughters were her first grandchildren. They may as well have been the only children on earth. I still cannot count the number of photo shoots, games, books or park excursions Nana was responsible for. She was always there to help–or babysit.

One of the best early tips my mom gave me was “if she’s dry, fed and safe, let her cry.” For a new mom who was stressing out over what this baby wanted from me, this advice from my mother set me free. And I realized she had been teaching me lessons on motherhood my entire life, if I just took the time to look.

My mom taught me that tolerance was an important characteristic for all moms. Whether it’s listening to your kid’s awful music, sitting through a never-ending story about what happened at school today, or waiting for your child to find their place and their worth in the world, moms have to wait it out. You can nudge, counsel or yell, but your children have to do it on their own. So you wait.

Mothers have to be “forgiveness experts” because kids will certainly make mistakes and hurt your feelings. Younger children throw tantrums, rejecting any loving attempt to comfort them and older kids/teens don’t hesitate to let you know your opinion is outdated (and maybe even irrelevant). But moms know that these slights don’t overshadow a child’s true love for mom, so they forgive. I can think back on several times my behavior was surely annoying, maybe almost disrespectful (I said “maybe”. My mom didn’t play that.) I wish I could erase those times but I know my mom forgave me, probably only minutes later.

My mother also showed me that moms have to be engaged with their kids, actually talking with them, not just to them. This is how you know what’s happening in your child’s life and how you build the foundation for the adult relationship, when you become friends. This is when you’re on (almost) equal footing–although in my family the elders typically still try to run the show. 

Looking back over the expanse of our relationship, I can see the growth of both of us. At a very young age, as we entered a store I can remember my mom saying “Don’t touch anything and don’t embarrass me. And just before I delivered my first child, I can remember my mom at my hospital bedside saying “You’re going to make a great mom.” This is progress.

When my mom passed in 2007 I was distraught. In addition to the gaping hole that unexpectedly opened in my life, I wondered where I’d get the additional lessons I needed to raise my girls, who were 5 and 3 at the time. I had years to go as the mom of these young people and still so much to learn. Little did I know then, if I just looked back on her body of work, the consistency of her support and the kindness in her heart, she had already taught me so much.

To all the moms who are feeding the souls and personalities of their kids today and every day, happy Mother’s Day. Your lessons will surely live on.

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