As children, what we see of our mothers is all we know.
For a long time, I didn't know my mom was strong, let alone how strong. It wasn't that I saw her as weak, her inner struggles just weren't on my radar. She did a really good job of holding herself together when she was in front of me, wrapping all her broken pieces inside her arms, only letting them fall to the floor once she was out of sight, and alone.
As children, what we see of our mothers is all we know. We're too young to read body language accurately, too innocent to see in between the lines. I believed my mom was mostly happy, because that was the face she wore for me.
Only later did I come to understand all that she'd been through. There's a line in the Jason Isbell song "Children of Children" that talks about mothers, and "all the years I took from her, just by being born." It makes me want to cry every time I hear it, because it's a beautiful and painful truth.
By the time my mom was the age I am now, she had five kids and two painful divorces under her belt. I think about that, and it becomes so clear to me how much it cost her to get up out of bed every day, to be present, to make us feel like the world was a safe place, a good place. That takes strength in spades.
It made me think about the ways we're all shaped by the strengths (and weaknesses) our mothers possess, how we learn from their example what to do and how to be, and what we should avoid.
These are 10 things I learned from being raised by a strong mom.
1. There's so much more to life than what you weigh.
My mom was, like so many of her generation, overwhelmingly preoccupied with how much she weighed. She introduced the word "diet" into my lexicon before I was old enough to go to school, and it was a mainstay throughout my life. She was always trying to lose weight, always skipping meals and counting calories.
After she got sick, once the chemo kicked in and she could barely eat, she actually viewed the subsequent weight loss as a silver lining. This is one of those things where her struggle with something taught me to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction.
One of the saddest things for me, one of my biggest regrets, is that I was never able to help my mother learn to love her own body, to feel content with it whatever her weight. I treat my own body with far more loving kindness than she was ever able to show hers.
2. A little common sense goes a long way.
I was going through some papers in my twenties and found an old letter offering a college scholarship to my mom. It stunned me. She'd never been to college; she had me when she was nineteen. When I asked her about it, she brushed it off. "Oh," she said, waving a dismissive hand, "I married your dad instead."
While my mom never came across as especially intellectual, she was nobody's fool. It didn't take a degree for her to spot bullsh*t coming from a mile away, though she didn't always move out of its way. She told me once that book smarts weren't the only kind of smart, and how right she was.
Common sense is what carries us through life, how we navigate the world around us. You don't have to be a genius to know how to steer your ship on a true course.
3. I'm almost always worth more than I give myself credit for.
My mom was probably my biggest fan. She didn't always agree with or understand me, but she championed me endlessly. "I'm so proud of you, honey." I heard it weekly, if not daily, especially in adulthood, a time where I was able to truly understand and appreciate what she was saying.
It wasn't really my accomplishments, such as they were. She just thought I was a pretty great human being. I know part of that is simply because I was her daughter, and that most moms feel this way about their kids. But every time she said it, she managed to infuse those words with sincerity.
She never let me get away with bad-mouthing myself. You can't have somebody believe in you so deeply without it leaving a mark on you, without thinking to yourself, "I might actually be at least half as awesome as she thinks I am."
4. Sometimes, being alone is the best option.
It took a long time for my mom to learn this. She went through years of being miserable because she didn't want to be on her own. It was a pattern of behavior passed down through the women in her family. I saw the lying, the cheating, the way they would get drunk or high and scream at her, lay the blame at her feet.
The day she kicked that sh*t away from her was one of the best days of my life. She came into her own after that, learned to be alone, befriended herself and began to enjoy her own company. She made it very clear that a lifetime of being on her own was preferable to time wasted on someone who made her feel lonely even sitting right next to her.
5. Believe people when they show you who they are.
If my mom had lived by this bit of wisdom from the beginning, she wouldn't have had to learn #4 the hard way, but once that lesson was learned, it was never forgotten. She reminded me frequently that people will almost always show you exactly who they are by their words and deeds, and it's up to us what we do with that information.
When you know the state of someone's heart, you have exactly what you need to make a decision on whether or not they deserve a place in your life. If they don't lie to you, don't lie to yourself.
6. I will never be able to control someone else's actions, only my reaction to them.
Remember when I talked about my mom's two divorces? That was when she was my age. She went on to rack up two more. Besides kids, heartache, and sometimes some child support, the biggest thing she took away from those experiences was the harsh truth that you can never, ever, make someone act right.
You can't force someone to be a good person. You can't emotionally blackmail someone into making the right decisions. The only person we can ever be truly in charge of is ourselves, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the more freedom we will have from frustrated, and ultimately futile, efforts.
7. If you make a promise, you damn well keep it.
My father was my mom's first husband. Breaking promises was his specialty. He was the first in a long line of men my mother married who had a lot of difficulty putting their vows first. After years of disappointment, she learned how rare it is to find someone you can take at their word and hold them to that.
It doesn't mean you stop trusting everyone, it just means you're more selective about who you count on for the important things. She never made me a promise she couldn't keep, precisely because she knew how important that was to me.
8. Never give up.
When I write about my mom, I often feel like I focus on the worst aspects of her life — the times she was let down, the loneliness she often felt. She was healthy right up until a stage 3C ovarian cancer verdict came her way. But in telling you the bad stuff, I'm setting up the story of how insanely brave she turned out to be.
Some of us are just born unlucky. My mom had more than her fair share of one-two punches from the universe, but she got back up every single time. Her entire life she believed in happy endings. Right up until the day she died, she held on to hope, tried to pass that on to us as best she could. She fought for joy, for contentment, for peace. Even if all she could manage was treading the water, she always kept her head above the surface so she could see the sky.
10. Nobody will ever love you like your mama loves you.
This I know for sure. My mom and I had our problems, like every mother and daughter in history. But this woman fought tooth and nail for me to grow up believing in myself, believing that dreams can come true.
She brought me tomato soup and grilled cheese in bed when I had pneumonia. She let me sleep on the floor beside her bed until I was sixteen, dragging in my pillow and blanket just so I could be close to her when the world threatened to pull me away. She rented movies she hated because I wanted to see them. She put up with boys she couldn't stand because I thought I loved them.
She told me I was beautiful when I was a chubby-faced, four-eyed 12-year-old trying to come to terms with my diminishing childhood. She loved my husband and she loved my babies, and she loved me in the quiet and unassuming way of mothers everywhere, the kind of love you never have to question. Although many wonderful people have influenced the person I am today, without my mom, I would be a shell of myself.
It's easy to overlook what a tremendous gift a mother's love is until she's gone, because it's the first thread in our life's tapestry, an always present part of us. Learning to live with only the memory of that takes all the strength she passed on to me. Thank goodness she had an abundance of it to give me.