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Lessons from My Mom

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, and a particularly special one to my mom! Hopefully this is the last time I spend the day away from home.

I inherited a lot from my mom: the shape of my forehead and eyes; my stature; my perfect health and uncanny physical resilience. Personality quirks, too: truly unreasonable stubbornness; always having an opinion; doing anything for a laugh; a persistent need to be informed, especially on current events.

Sometimes my mom is hard on herself, especially when us kids experience hardship or failure. It’s difficult for her not to internalize it, wondering if she could have prevented our misfortune or if it was somehow indirectly her fault. Part of this is just the nature of being a parent, I think, but the other part is that all parents mess up their kids in ways they couldn’t foresee, ways that have ripple affects across their children’s entire lives. For the most part, though, we all turn out all right. I turned out better than all right. I think my mom knows this deep down – knows that there are aspects of me which are completely apart from her, parts which she can’t blame (or, perhaps, praise) herself for. But it couldn’t hurt to remind her of the good stuff.

Here are a few of the many lessons I’ve learned from my mom. There are more than I can list, but these are most important to me right now. In ten years’ time, I’m sure I will have a completely new list based on my own growth and how my mom has helped me along the way.

From these examples, you’ll learn that my mom is brave, resourceful, resilient, strong, and wise. It is my hope that, in time, I develop these qualities, too.

My mom and her mom. Photo torn and dirty from being taped and removed from so many surfaces in the past several years. I’ve taken it with me on almost every deployment.

Keep a paper calendar and address book, and always have stationery handy.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrambled to figure out on what date I did something, especially in the Navy. I used to rely on my mom’s “memory” for reminding me about stuff, but what I was really relying on was that my mom writes stuff down and keeps it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked her a birthday or an address, and she always knows. I’ve also stolen more stamps and envelopes from her than I can count, and I’ve always admired her foresight in having all of this information and resources at the ready. I wanted to be that organized, too.

By now you all are well acquainted with my love of bullet journaling, which allows me to consolidate all of my “need to remember” stuff into one pocket-sized source. It’s my external brain. I am lost without it. But I might never have intuitively understood the need to find my own information organization system without my mom’s great example.

Plus, you never know when you’re going to need to send a card or letter at short notice. I have a basket of stationery supplies always at the ready. My mom made us write thank you cards for everything (everything), and though this was unimaginably tedious as a kid, it’s a habit I continue today. It’s a genuinely thoughtful touch that goes a long way. If you have ever been impressed with my politeness or manners, that’s entirely thanks to my mom.

Work for people, not for employers.
Mom, now retired, spent decades as a nurse. She enjoyed the flexibility of it, especially when us kids were in school. Being a nurse is naturally service- (or, at least, people-) oriented, and Mom’s understanding that the nature of work itself is on behalf of people changed the way that I thought about finding fulfillment in a job.

It’s hard to get excited about work when viewed through the lens of the employer’s bottom line. In most cases, your business’s or industry’s goals are probably not major values in your own life. But rather than looking towards the abstract priorities of wherever she’s working – a hospital or a school, mainly – my mom looks at the needs of the people directly in front of her and derives her fulfillment from increasing their quality of life. This is not a strategy to get you on a fast-track to promotion, but it made my mom’s working life extremely rewarding to her, even on the days when it was very challenging work, physically and mentally. Maybe even especially then.

Whenever I get frustrated with the Navy’s priorities or decisions made by my leadership, my mom does an excellent job of refocusing my attention on the things I can do to support the people around me, things which will make them happier or more focused. My mom took my ambitions for professional excellence and reframed them in ways that ended up being much more satisfying on a personal level. It’s because of my mom’s unique work ethic that I will look back on my time in the Navy with fondness – not for the work itself, but for the people whose lives overlapped with mine along the way.

Unconditional love can change someone’s life.
I get to take for granted that unconditional love is a parent’s job. I know this is not true for everyone. My mom is not enthusiastic about every decision I make (and this is a good thing, too, because it shows I’ve grown into a whole person with dreams and desires separate from hers), but I know there is nothing I can do which will stop her from loving me, and this gives me the confidence to be brave, take risks, and more than anything, it gives me permission to be fully myself. I know she will be there for me no matter what, even in my worst moments. This is an incredible blessing. I’m so fortunate to have it.

I also watched how my mom providing one-on-one nursing to a boy with severe developmental disabilities radically altered his family’s life. No matter what he or his family threw at my mom, she took it in stride and never quit, never took a day off, and her thoughtfulness and reliability gave them the space to become more secure as a family. Her love and dedication changed their lives for the better.

How to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world.
My mom and I share our introversion in common. We love spending time with people, but at the end of the day, we need to come home to peace and quiet and spend time with ourselves. My mom always says that her favorite person is herself, and she makes it a priority to get her “me time” every day. Her comfort with herself and her insistence on having her introverted needs met made a huge impact on me. When I get stressed out, feeling pulled in a hundred different directions, I remember my mom setting her boundaries and making herself a priority. It made me comfortable with doing the same.

Criticize choices, not groups or individuals.
I have never heard my mom make generalizations about whole groups of people. This is hugely impressive to me, who loves to take an easy pot-shot for a laugh. But she is also the first to speak up when someone does something wrong, especially if it affects people besides herself. My mom disagrees – and disagrees often – with people’s decisions, but never with their personalities or characters. I’ve always admired her fearlessness in standing up for herself and others.

Laugh at yourself before anyone else can.
While my mom is quick to point out poor decisions in others, she is also the first to point the finger back at herself when she falls short or goofs up. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. In fact, she doesn’t take herself seriously at all. Mom laughs at herself easily and has an uncanny ability to take accountability for her failures without letting them affect her self-esteem. It makes her impervious to embarrassment or self-consciousness, at least anything lasting more than a minute or two. She happily relishes the times where she made a fool of herself or learned a hard lesson. Things slide right off her and she takes them in stride. My mom’s fortitude in the face of negative feelings is exceptional, and something I’d like to be better at, too, as I get older.

It’s okay to be just good enough!
My mom is anti-perfectionism. To her, done is done. This is probably why she is able to accomplish so much every day and maintains excellent time management. Sometimes our fears of things being less than perfect makes us procrastinate or give up on even the most ordinary tasks. To Mom, just getting it done is good enough. Improvements can always be made later.

You only get one body, so take care of it.
To say that my mom is obsessed with health and fitness is an understatement. Growing up, my brother called her a “nutrition nazi.” She wouldn’t allow sweets or soda into the house, except on special occasions. She made time to cook healthy dinners and cut up fruit for us to eat as snacks. She forced us to go out and play, even when we didn’t want to. She took us to parks all around the state, and all of our family vacations were rooted in being outdoors: skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer.

But even though these habits were odious to me as a nerdy video game child, I realize now that these patterns are fundamental to who I became. My diet is incredibly healthy. Sweets are a rare treat in my house (though alcohol is a different story, one which I will address in my next post). I make myself go out and exercise every day, even especially when I don’t want to. All of my travel is focused around experiencing nature. My mom’s rules about food and activity have become my own.

Mom grew up the daughter of a farm girl; my grandma was riding her bike and picking up trash around the neighborhood into her late 70s – maybe even her early 80s. My mom is (and my grandma was) a robust, high-energy woman who understands and appreciates the blessing of a physically strong and able body. No one can believe my mom is in her 60s (sorry, Mom!) when they meet her because she has aged so beautifully, and happily boasts needing no medication and having no chronic illnesses. Like her mom before her, she is still riding her bike every chance she gets, and I imagine she will continue doing so for decades to come.

Spend time with loved ones while you still can.
An inevitable part of aging is realizing the impermanence of everything, including yourself and everyone you love.

“Quality time” is a specialty of my mom’s. She made sure we always ate dinner together at night and was always there to tuck us in to bed. She was at every sporting event, every recital, every parent-teacher conference. She was present. This was how she showed that loved us: by giving us her time and attention.

But she carried this into my adult life, too. Mom made me feel included whenever I missed a family event, taking photos with everyone holding up signs that said they missed me. Every time I come home, my mom makes me feel like I’m her whole world. This has meant more to me than I’m able to articulate, and I’m getting a little choked just thinking about it. It makes me want to do the same for someone else. Mom gives me her space and her time and is incredibly respectful when I need to be alone.

I saw her do this for her mother, too, as she began to fail. Mom drove a few hours every weekend to spend time with Grandma, to clean her house and cook for her and do her laundry. Grandma wanted to stay in her house, not move someplace else with assisted living, and Mom gave a tremendous amount of her time and energy to make that a reality – which, I believe, preserved my grandma’s dignity in a time in which she was losing more and more of her autonomy. My mom talks often about how rewarding this experience was for her, too. It meant a lot to her to get to spend so much time with her mother, and she is happy that she got to spend the last of her mother’s life right alongside her, letting her pass surrounded by love, with no regrets and nothing left unsaid.

This made a huge impression on me. It is a big motivating factor in wanting to move back home: I want to be there for my parents when they need me, just as my mom has always been there for me each and every time I needed her, and how she was there for her mother, too. The circle of life.

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