I thought that since it was Mother's Day this weekend, I'd take a minute and reflect on the gifts that my own mom gave me when I was in middle school--the things she did as a mother that have served me well throughout my life.
Just for the record, I was one of the biggest pains in the world during middle school. I was a tumultuous, stormy little beast back then. I really was.
My mom wasn't perfect. She made mistakes. However, I have realized something important over the years. The mistakes she made have all been washed away in the ebb and flow of time. None of them matter any more. The things she did well have blessed me continually.
Here are some of the things my mom did well:
1. She didn't interfere. She knew where I was and with whom I was, but she didn't intrude or insert herself into my social life. I had rules and parameters--curfews and so on, but she really didn't care about the lastest gossip--which of my friends were going out with girls or things like that. When I had spats with other kids, she always refused to get involved and told me I'd have to work it out myself.
This empowered me to make my way in the world and feel confident in my ability to solve problems. It gave me sense of agency and independence. When it was time for me to leave the house and be on my own, I was ready. Going away to college and then a two-year church mission were not difficult (at least in that aspect) because I was used to solving my own problems and being independent. By letting me work things out on my own when the stakes were fairly low, she gave me the gift of being able to work things out when the stakes were higher. She was there to walk me through things, but she would not intercede.
2. She made me work. Growing up, I had various chores. Weeding, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, mowing the lawn, making dinner and so on. This was a real pain for my mom because none of us kids ever did the job well the first time, so she had to invest a lot of time checking and re-checking and listening to our excuses, protestations, and arguments. She could have done all this herself in probably 1/3rd of the time it took to get us to do this.
I hated the work more than I can say. But when I left home at 18, I knew how to cook. Well. I knew how to do laundry, iron, and clean a bathroom, a refrigerator, and on and on. When I got my own house, I knew how to garden, weed, mow a lawn, and other basics of home maintenance. I started my adult life already knowing how to do all these things and that was a huge help.
3. She was an adult. Instead of sinking to my level and trying to be cool, trying to talk or dress like a teen, my mom was an adult and I got the idea she enjoyed being an adult. That gave me something to aspire to, and it gave me someone to respect, even when I didn't like her very much.
As I got older and the storms of adolescence faded, I came to see what a great gift this is. Teenagers are naturally egocentric. They will naturally think they are the center of the universe. My mom helped me understand I was not and she helped pull me out of the roiling seas of adolescence to the firmer shore of adulthood. And I find it much more congenial there.
4. She refused to be manipulated. As I mentioned in number 2, there were times I didn't like her. Times I was mad. Times I raged and stormed and bellowed at the unfairness of all she required. She was immoveable and unyielding in sticking by her guns.
5. She sided with my teachers. Always. I hated this. But any trouble in school would be met with swift retribution at home. This really forced me to focus and do my best in school. I hated school, quite frankly. I was lazy and undisciplined and probably had ADD (it wasn't known back then). So, I hated every minute of it. If I had known that I could get away with slacking or goofing off, I would have done it in a second. I would not have pushed myself, I would not have tried at all. I would have checked out completely. I was a pretty creative kid and would have been able to do a lot of wiggling and weaseling had I thought it would avail. I would have played my parents against my teachers if I thought I would have been able to get away with it.
I hate to think of where I would have ended up. Happily, mom insisted that I behave and wouldn't let me check out. This was a lot of work for her. But I knew I couldn't slide by with not turning in assignments or things like that. I knew I couldn't misbehave and then say things like, "Well, Mr. S0-and-so just doesn't like me."
6. She made my go outside. In our house, TV was strictly limited. We were expected to go and play outside for most of the day and we did. I have such happy memories of those times, now. My siblings and I entertained ourselves and made up all kinds of fun, imaginative games. I also did a lot of reading, which has obviously blessed my life as well.
7. She put my dad first. My dad did the same. All of us kids knew that the marriage came first and that Mom and Dad were one unit. We couldn't play them against each other and knew better than to try. They lived for each other and they were (and are) the center of each other's universes.
As a kid that sort of bugged me when I saw friends who were the center of their parent's universe. But even at the time, it provided a great deal of security for me. I knew that my home was built on a rock solid foundation and that my parents were together for the long haul. In the long term, it helped prepare me for my own marriage and taught me how to be a husband first.
8. She encouraged our imaginations. As long as I can remember, we had a big drawer full of paper and there were always markers and paint and other art supplies--a big basket of them, in fact. Mom encouraged us to use our imaginations and make things. She kept up with the latest books in children's literature, and our bookshelves were stocked with Newbery award winners and other books that had merit. We had library cards and used them. She kept beautiful music playing.
9. She didn't spoil us. My parents were affluent--my father was a successful lawyer during the boom years of the 80s. We lived a comfortable life, but had very modest possessions. Their philosophy was that, as parents, they owed us clothing, but not Reeboks and other expensive stuff. So, they would give us a dollar amount they'd spend on our clothes. If we wanted something above that, we came up with the rest of it.
When we wanted something fun or nice--a bike or a stereo--they would always pay half and we would save the other half.
They put a lot of money into savings and life insurance and so on, building an emergency supply of food and other necessities (this was in the Cold War, and we lived near a major Air Force base). This all created a feeling of security and stability. We felt safe and secure.
It also taught me to be frugal and careful with money. They spent lots of money on lessons and family vacations and a boat so we could water-ski together--but they were very careful about how and what they spent their money on.
10. My mom loved us. She loved us far more than herself or her own comfort or hobbies. She devoted herself to us and our happiness. She expected things of us and she was firm, but she was not harsh or unkind. We knew she would do anything for us. I remember in 11th grade procrastinating a huge research paper. This was back in the days of typewriters, and I sat at the dining room table plunking away with my tw0-fingered technique, going nowhere fast. It got later and later. Somewhere around 11, Mom appeared. She took over the typing and, since she actually knew how to type, it went much faster. But since I was just making it up as I went, not a lot faster. I had some notes, I think, and I was using generous quotations from an encyclopedia. I fell asleep at one point. When I woke up, it was 2 am. Mom was still typing.
11. She welcomed my friends. Even though they were strict with curfews and what movies I could go see, my parents always welcomed my friends. I could have a party anytime I wanted, and she always kept ice cream and chips and other teen-friendly foods on hand when our friends came to hang out. Smart woman.
In short, my mom loved us enough to do things that would bless us in the long-term instead of doing things that would make her life easier in the short-term. At the time, a lot of this bugged me. My frustration at the time is matched only by the gratitude I have felt ever since leaving home. The more I live and see, the more grateful I am that she was the way she was. That's what I mean when I say that the effect of her weaknesses or mistakes have long since been negated, but the good things she did were investments that continue to pay dividends.
As I write this with a father's perspective, I realize that most of what my mom did that was good was also hard. It took discipline on her part and an eye to the long view. It meant loving us enough to do hard things.
And that is a lesson and of itself.
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