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Lessons My Mother Never Taught Me

by Eleanor Haley

I’m writing this post from my front porch where I’m watching my almost nine-year-old daughter, Evelyn, teach my six-year-old daughter, Virginia to ride a bike. This afternoon has been all bad moods and tears, so it’s surprising to see them working towards a common goal. Even when this undertaking is handled by adults it has the capacity to bring all frustrated and bruised kneed parties to tears; yet there they are, teacher and student, laughing, motivating, trusting.  I have to say, this moment is 90% perfect.

The other 10% of this moment is filled with misgivings. There’s a part of me that feels negligent, as though I’m shirking my parental responsibility. Why did Virginia have to wait for Evelyn to teach her to ride her bike? Now when she looks back on this moment she’ll wonder to herself, “Why did Evelyn teach me to ride a bike?  Oh, I remember, because my mother never bothered.”

Mothers have a reputation for being self-critical and, clearly, I’m no exception. Although I’m 90% confident I’m a good mother, I’m 10% confident I’m going to screw up my kids. It’s the 10% of me that lies awake at night counting all the times I told Evelyn I’d play a game with her “in five minutes” and then secretly hoped she’d forget. Sometimes I go so far as to worry about my future failures, thinking I’ll undoubtedly botch my daughter’s teenage years and turn them into insecure, neurotic, directionless adults. This sets off a tailspin that naturally leads me to consider all potential ‘worst-case-scenarios’, and ends with me waking up my husband.

“Hey…Matt…are you awake?  

He is…I’m a terrible whisperer.  I realize he’s trying to sleep, so I get right to the point…

“If I die, you have to promise me you won’t marry someone awful. Whoever comes next, you have to make sure she will teach the girls the exact same things I would….okay?….Matt?…Are you awake?” 

His silence tells me he’s either fallen back asleep or he’s decided not to feed into my panic cycle.

Are my worries unreasonable?  Maybe, but those of you with dead mothers can at least understand where I’m coming from. Honestly, I think it’s far more rational for me to worry about the things I may never have a chance to teach my daughters than it is for me to angst about the missed minutia of days passed. I believe this to be true because my own mother skimmed over quite a few life lessons. If it had to get done, my mother did it.  If it was superfluous, she skipped it. 

lessons my mother never taught me

Today I look back on the many things my mother didn’t teach me, like how to cook, clean, wear makeup, do laundry properly, apply for insurance/financial aid/college/anything that requires an application, and laugh. While simultaneously longing for the motherly advice she would have presumably given me had she lived – things like how to raise my children, how to handle marital disagreements, how to balance being a working mother, how to grow old gracefully, how to be a grandparent, and the list will go on for as long as I live.  I don’t think I’ll ever shake the desire for her black-and-white, concrete input; even if it’s input that I’d disagree with and ultimately ignore.

When my mother was alive, I had an indestructible connection to a never-ending source of comfort, security, forgiveness, guidance, and reassurance.  When she died, these things seemed to die with her and I was cut loose in a world with no gravity. Adrift and directionless, I struggled to deal with the greatest tragedy of my charmed existence without the very person who, a year before, would have helped me get through it.  

If my mother had been able to help me cope with her death, I know exactly what she would have done.  She would have gone to Barnes and Noble and bought all the books she could find on grief.  Then she would have gone home and filled several yellow ledger pads full of research, which she’d later turn into a very long ‘concerned-mom-letter’ (my mother was famous for her ‘concerned-mom-letters’) and if nothing else, upon receiving it I would feel loved and reassured. 

I tell you, I could go around and around in this mother-daughter circle all day.  I’m a mother, then a daughter, then a mother, and back to a daughter. Feel and reflect, feel and reflect; it can get exhausting but it’s the only way I continue to learn. Where some people can pick up the phone and have new conversations and experiences, I have to go into the past and search for clues.  Perhaps I use these clues to invent my own truths about what my mother would say or do if she were here, but they’re useful truths nonetheless.

For example, I believe if my mother were here today she’d tell me to ignore the 10% of myself that lies awake at night worrying about being a bad parent. Maybe she’d point out how fondly her children regard her despite her shortcomings. Maybe she’d reassure me that as long as I give my daughters the things they need in life, like unconditional love and guidance, they will forgive my maternal imperfections. Chances are, I probably won’t ruin Evelyn’s teenage years and maybe, someday, Virginia will forgive me for not teaching her to ride that bike.

Now that’s pretty solid advice.

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