When you're five, she's a goddess. You smear your face with her lipstick and model her earrings and high heels, wanting to be just like mommy. That's the way it is until you're about thirteen, when she suddenly becomes the most ignorant, benighted, out-of-touch creature on the planet, and you can't get far enough away from her. Your primary form of interaction for the next five years or so will be a single word, "Mooooooooooooommmmmmm!" And then, somewhere between your twenties and your thirties, if you're lucky, she becomes your best friend again.
Sound familiar? Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated, to say the least. So complicated that I often I revel in the fact that I escape it completely by having two boys. So complicated that I’ve put off writing this column because I was unsure how to describe my own relationship with my mother, but it is important. Because no relationship is quite as fundamental as the one between a mother and daughter. It’s the first relationship we have, both parents are, but for daughters a mother is also role model. The first “picture" of what we could or might become and as a result, we compare ourselves throughout our lives, over and over again. It is not always pretty either, especially in those teenage years. But no matter what, we learn. Mind you, some of the lessons range from the good to the bad, to the irritating to the exasperating (ask our partners). But this learning goes on to shape who we are, who we want to be or who we don't, so truthfully a conversation about our own definition of success would't be complete without at least exploring it.
After years of reflection, the way I have come to think about our "lessons from Mom" is this; there is the ”little learning” and the “b-i-g learning”. The little lessons are everyday things and fairly innocuous, things like, information, habits, fashion tips, family traditions, and simple how-to's. For example, I learned things like , always write a thank-you note, always get a good (expensive) hair cut because curly hair is difficult, never put a bottle or jar on the table (hence my enormous collection of little bowls), and the recipe for a kick-ass noodle pudding. But then there’s BIG learning, little trickier and not always as innocuous; character traits,, coping skills, emotional DNA, values, perspective, career counsel, relationship modeling, they’re big, so they get the “big learning” label. They shape us. This is my focus today.
Just last week, Hilary Rodham Clinton’s mom, Dorothy Howell Rodham, died at the age of 92. She was widely recognized as being a great source of Clinton’s personal strength. Clinton told the world of the lessons she learned from her mom; how to stand up for herself and to stand up for those who needed help, a love of higher learning that her mom herself never had, a curiosity about a larger world, and a will to persevere — about which Mrs. Rodham knew a great deal from her own life that was documented as filled with hardship, loneliness and abandonment.
Also this week, not quite as famous but just as important, I attended the funeral of a close friend’s mother. At the funeral, my friend spoke beautifully, lovingly and sincerely about all that she learned from her mother both before and during her mom’s long illness; self-confidence, personal strength, humor, friendship and love (her parents were married for 50 years). All traits that she does her best to apply to her own life and the choices she now makes with her own family.
While this reflection often occurs after a death, for many women, myself included, our mothers serve as our baseline during our entire life. They are our first female model, and so we go on to spend a lifetime trying to figure out what pieces we want to be “just like” and what we would do anything in our power to not be like at all. The process is not that linear and usually filled with a few fireworks along route but it is continuous… until hopefully each woman comes out the other side with her own definition of self. That is what is most important and having had some of these conversations with my own mother, exactly what they actually want for us.
Some women want to emulate their Mom’s careers, or provide the same home life to their families that they enjoyed growing up. A friend I know talks about how her mother always made every birthday a special occasion in the house, decorations, cake, parties, etc. so she tries to do the same for her kids. Perhaps your mother was a politician, a lawyer, and you were able to see the wonderful fulfillment and gratification that came from their work and so you follow. This certainly works in reverse too, a daughter growing up with a “stay-at home-mom” uses this as a reason to work and advance her own career because she saw that her Mom felt unfulfilled… or a daughter growing up with a “Career Mom” who worked 80 hours a week promises herself that she will do it all differently when she has a family. She will be home after school, attend every soccer game, trying to give her kids what she feels she missed.
I personally have done some mixing and matching, as I am sure most of us do. My mother, widowed at 38, with three young children had to work. She worked so hard both at her job as a Grade 1 teacher and as the mother of three children. She had little emotional or financial support and so our home while didn’t lack, there was little extra energy for anything but just getting through the day. So what did I learn? The little learning, among many includes cooking, laundry, sale shopping, amazing time management skills, and awesome study habits. Mostly positive and comes in handy all the time! The big learning though has helped form my character. I learned to work hard, be independent, high functioning (most of the time), and most of all, I can only hope that I have learned to be as kind and giving as my Mom. But make no mistake, I have also used my mom as a baseline to change what I want in my own life, like realizing that if if you have the time and the resources, small things in a family life are important, take attention and make you better, avoidance gets you nowhere, I have learned the importance of connecting with feelings, breathing, and taking a thoughtful approach to situations. Why? Because my Mom simply didn’t have the luxury of time to do so.
More than anything though, I have realized motherhood sure as hell is not easy, certainly more so now as a Mother myself. We are just regular people doing the best we can and want the best for our children. So we should all take the things that make our own Mom's wonderful to us but also have the power and strength to define ourselves as we choose, perhaps like our Mother’s, perhaps not. Our choice. And Mom’s of the world should feel proud regardless because it all started with them. There are so many women who wonder all their lives if they have raised their children well. I think we should tell them all now, including my own, that they have done just fine. Don't wait.
Share the important lessons your mother taught you. What lesson did your mom instill in you that you are especially grateful for? What different choices have you made in your own life based on your childhood? Are you teaching your children the some of the same things you learned from your mom?