My mom passed away in 2004—one year after I got married and five years before my first child was born. Though I’ve missed my mother even more since becoming a parent myself, I’ve realized over the years that she is still sharing her wisdom with me.
Here are some of the things she’s helped me to learn:
Sometimes it’s a lot more fun to embrace the chaos. I like things to be orderly, so I tend to take immediate action if I notice an overflowing laundry basket or a rogue dirty dish in the sink. But growing up, I don’t recall my mother ever worrying that our home was messy or disorganized. I do remember slumber parties where 20 or so pre-teen girls careened through the living room, eating pizza and laughing wildly. There were also countless family fondue and spaghetti nights, decorations strewn about the house during the holidays, and a plethora of pets that could have qualified as a mini zoo. These are the flashes of childhood that stand out in my mind, reminding me it’s okay to hit the pause button in my constant quest for order and just enjoy the moment with my kids.
Cultivating friendships with other parents often takes a bit of bravery. Shortly after getting married in Chicago, my mom and dad moved to California to settle in a community where they had no family or close connections. As a writer and reporter, my mom would use the trick of interviewing people if she felt nervous about meeting someone new. When my husband, our two daughters and I moved to Wisconsin, my mom’s experience helped motivate me to connect with others, even in awkward or embarrassing situations. In fact, I met a close mom friend in a rather ungraceful way: my daughter tried to bite her son on the first day of preschool. After my mortified apology, I quickly decided to strike up a conversation, which paved the way for our friendship (and luckily, much more amicable play dates!).
It’s okay to show your kids when you’re hurting. Before we became the astonishingly (okay, reasonably) mature adults we are today, my brother, sister and I had some epic fights; in our family of five people, there was always ample opportunity for conflict. I remember my mom sitting on the couch next to me after one particularly high-decibel argument. She didn’t yell. She didn’t lay out punishments. Instead, she said quietly, “It hurts my heart when we fight.” When I heard the sadness in her voice, I suddenly understood the true impact of my actions. On days when my kids’ bickering makes me want to climb the walls, my first instinct is to shout even louder than them and threaten to confiscate their favorite toys. But then I think of my mom, and I remember that there are different ways to respond to conflict and bad behavior. Sometimes our kids need to know that we’re not invincible.
Everyone benefits when parents are able to pursue meaningful interests outside of caring for their kids. My mom founded our community newspaper, and she also volunteered at local homeless shelters and for city organizations. With the blissful ignorance of a child, I once asked her, “Mom, why do you want to spend so much time away from your family? Don’t you like us?” I didn’t understand it then, but now I know that when you become a parent, the person you were “B.C.” (Before Children) can sometimes get lost. As I observed my mom taking on projects that were important to her, I realized that there was more to the world than the comfortable bubble in which I was growing up. I still sometimes feel guilty when I take time away from my kids because of other commitments, but I’m learning to put that aside.
A little humor—and a lot of coffee—goes a long way in managing the emotional rollercoaster that is motherhood. When I was five years old, my mom took me for a haircut. I was not pleased, and spent weeks afterward lamenting the brutal loss of my long tresses, crying to my mom that she had undoubtedly ruined my life. Later, in my teenage years, my weekend-long sulk fests probably had my parents searching for the nearest insane asylum. But rather than getting pulled into my mood swings, often my mom would simply pour another cup of coffee, smile and laugh it off. When I’m having a tough day with the kids, I can still hear my mom’s impossibly cheerful voice saying, “Laugh it off!” I don’t always succeed in taking her advice, but in those moments when I do, I know I’m weathering the storm with a lighter heart.
I’ll always be grateful that my mom played such a big part in shaping who I am as a mother. And I hope I never stop learning from her.