In honor of Mother’s Day, here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my mom. Over the years, I’ve internalized many of her pieces of wisdom, and I want to share a few of the gems she has bestowed on me that have made me a better, happier person.
1. “When you’re upset, write a letter and put it in a drawer for 24 hours. If you still feel like sending it as is after a full day, go ahead. But 99% of the time, you won’t.”
There is real catharsis in anger. The adrenaline that comes with saying what you feel and having a target for those feelings propels people into arguments their rational minds may not have chosen. My parents taught me to be myself, to embrace all aspects of it, and in the words of actress Casey Wilson, “that life should be lived out loud and all big feelings felt.” (Seriously, pause here and go read her incredible essay on anger.) That said, I rarely unleash the full force of my anger because it decimates people. I was once mildly irritated at a boyfriend for being late to meet me at his apartment where I had to sit outside during winter with my suitcase for 20 minutes. I put my irritation at a 3/10. He told me a week later he was still scared of my anger in that moment. That’s when I knew it would never work out. The people who have stayed in my life have been strong enough to bear the brunt of my big feelings, but they shouldn’t necessarily have to. I once tried to lie to the world and describe myself as carefree, to which my best friend replied, “Is it only a binary choice between carefree and intense? Or are there degrees, like intensest intenser that ever intensed?”
Because of all these big feelings and strong articulation skills that convey exactly how those feelings feel to me (and by extension anyone within range), my mom’s advice has been key in maintaining relationships. Now, when I’m angry with anyone (friends, family, colleagues, bosses, clients, etc.), I draft an email. I never put the recipient’s name in the “To” line because it would absolutely be my luck to accidentally press send once I’ve finished ranting. I write everything I feel about how this person is affecting me. I get all the ugliness out, and when I have finished, the simple part of my brain says, “Ok great, that’s been dealt with, time for bed.” Even though it hasn’t actually been resolved, our brains read the action of writing it down as taking some steps towards resolution, and that’s good enough for the brain. At some point the next day, after I wake up, I reread the email. Often, I cringe at how harsh it is. In all my years of doing this (dating back to high school), I can say confidently that I have never sent that original draft. Sometimes I have edited and sent a version of it that remains on the intenser side of harsh. Sometimes I scrap it completely and never send it at all because the act of writing it down was enough catharsis for me. Most of the time, I do a major revision, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is reconciliation, not righteous indignation.
2. “You equate vulnerability with weakness, and to you nothing is worse than being weak.”
Woof. This one really punched me in the gut. I had spent my life being told I was the person to go to in a crisis because I was calm and take-charge. I prided myself on being able to navigate crises of all kinds and liked being the person everyone else came to for help. But when my nana died, for some reason I thought there was only a finite amount of grief allowed in our family. So instead of empathizing with my mom, letting her emote and express and just be, I jumped into logistical questions. When was the service, where would it be, how long before family scattered across the country could all get to one place? She finally told me she did not want to hear my clinical questions and that I needed to feel my own emotions about her mother’s death. I had told myself that I didn’t have time to feel anything because I was too busy (I found out in a break between grad school classes, then worked all the next day and flew to a 3-day conference with no downtime). But when she pushed me, I realized that I had actually been so afraid of empathizing with my mom over the loss of her mom because it meant I had to face the reality that someday I would be in the same position and I couldn’t handle that.
3. “The goal is not to be independent. If no one in your life feels needed, why would they be in it?”
For years, I thought the best version of myself was one that could do everything. I had read this poem written by Pamela Redmond Satran called “30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know by the Time She's 30” Number 11 was: “A set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill, and a black lace bra.” That made perfect sense to me. As a teenaged girl, I insisted my dad show me how to change a flat tire and how to use kitty litter to get my car out of snow. I thought being self-sufficient was the same thing as never needing anyone else. Author Courtney E. Martin writes in "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women" that “We are a generation of young women who were told we could do anything, and instead heard that we had to be everything.” My mom finally said to me, “Do you think I CAN’T mow the lawn? Do you think your father CAN’T take care of the plants? We do those things because we enjoy them, but if the other person were not there, we could do all of them. But if I never needed your father for anything, why would he stick around? People need to be needed. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you should rob someone else of the opportunity to do it.”
4. “No one cares about you.”
I was tardy for more of high school than I was on time. I pushed everything to the last minute, including picking out my outfit the morning of. Inevitably, I’d try something on and it wouldn’t look right, or I’d realize I wore it last week, or I was somehow breaking seasonal style rules by combining a turtleneck, capris, and open-toed mules (not that I distinctly remember the anguish this particular outfit caused me or anything). My mom would be exasperatedly yelling up the stairs, “NO ONE CARES!!! JUST PUT SOMETHING ON!” And while I wholeheartedly disagreed with her because as all teenagers are, I was convinced I was the center of the universe, it turns out she was right. I know this because I could not identify a single thing someone else wore for 4 years of high school. When I look back at my yearbook, all of the outfits blend together like a fever dream of J. Crew, Gap, and Abercrombie ads. It was liberating to finally embrace the idea that I was the center of no one’s universe but my own. Now I sometimes wear the same shirt to work two days in a row because even if I see the same people, the likelihood of someone stopping and going, “Didn’t she wear a black sweater yesterday? Gross.” is pretty slim. And even if they did, who cares? What a freeing thought.
5. “This is a dictatorship, not a democracy.”
And finally, this was my mother’s parenting paradigm. Some decisions, she explained, were just not up for discussion. While she understood that I wanted to ____ (sleep at a friend’s house for 4 days in a row, buy tickets for a concert I had no way of getting to without a ride, buy a horse…), it just wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes she offered an explanation, like “You absolutely do not have enough money for a horse, despite what you think you know about finances.” Sometimes she didn’t. That was how it worked because she was the adult. Now, anyone who knew me growing up knows that I didn’t hear “No.” very often, so these rare instances of boundary-setting were respected by me. And by respected I mean I usually wheedled and argued and stomped around until I was sure I definitely wasn’t going to get my way. But an interesting lesson that has taught me in the real world is that in the workplace, and in personal relationships, not everything is up for negotiation. You have your bottom line and so does the other person. Ideally, those come together more often than not. In a perfect world, every tooth on the zipper matches up completely. More likely, most of them do but there are a couple snags. But if too many teeth don’t align, your jacket will never close. Know yourself well enough to know what your bottom lines are vs. what you’re willing to negotiate, and respect yourself enough to know that some boundaries are steadfast.