The first recorded battle between my mother and me occurred when I was three years old. According to my mother, she had swatted my behind several times, and I refused to cry. Finally, I looked her in the eye and said, “You’re stupid.” While I don’t remember that incident, it sounds like something I would do and say.
Although my mother and I were alike in many ways and faced many of the same struggles, we approached life differently. We were often at odds. Despite our disagreements, my mother’s opinion always mattered to me. Two years after her death, her opinion still matters. When I was interviewing housekeepers a few weeks ago, I could practically hear her ask, “Why can’t you clean your own house?”
My mother never wrote a book, never addressed a crowd and didn’t accomplish everything she wanted to. But, she taught me several important lessons by her example.
1. Don’t work as hard as you can.
My mother was a public school librarian for over 30 years. Although she could have made more money and advanced professionally, she rarely worked after school or during the summer. As a child and as a young woman, I thought my mother was lazy. Now, as I am deliberately redesigning my life, I applaud her for spending her summers reading, watching TV, tending to her house plants, maintaining a beautiful lawn and monitoring activity in her neighborhood.
2. Make an effort to look great on the outside regardless of how you feel on the inside.
My mother loved classic fashions. She insisted on only the best quality clothing. While she was often sad or angry about the hand that life dealt her, she was always impeccably dressed and groomed. She wore tailored suits to chemotherapy the last 18 months of her life. I think my mother felt better about herself because she liked what she saw in the mirror.
3. Discipline your children without embarrassing them.
My mother was the queen of the “evil eye.” Probably more than most mothers, she saw my brother and me as reflections of her parenting. If we were loud or unruly in public, there would be an admonishment in a conversational tone at the scene of the crime. The leather belt was only applied behind closed doors.
4. Accept help from trusted family and friends.
My parents divorced when my brother and I were preschoolers. My mother took my brother and me to our grandparents’ home most weekends, and we spent most summers with my grandparents. This arrangement gave my mother a well-deserved break from single parenting, and it allowed my grandparents to shower us with their love and wisdom.
One of my first memories is of my parents arguing on Christmas Day when I was about six years old. For most of my childhood, my mother was sparring with my father about child support. However, about six weeks before I graduated from law school, my mother, father and great aunt pooled their resources to buy my first car. At some point, my parents began conferring with each other on what was best for their children. They could not have worked together the last 20 years of their lives if my mother had not forgiven my father.
While some women may seem better equipped to nurture their offspring, all mothers teach lessons. Our job is to look past the mistakes, the disappointments and the hurt and focus on the lasting value gained from our imperfect mothers.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from your mother?