I can’t remember a time when I did not believe wholly and completely in two truths: first, that my mother loved me more than anyone else in the world and second, that in her eyes I was capable of anything. As a child, I did not understand the magnitude of those two simple statements and I did not recognize it for what it was. For a skeptical child who questioned and second-guessed everything, I suppose my belief in my mother was surprisingly close to faith.
As I grew up and built relationships in the world outside my home, it became very clear that the other children that I met did not necessarily have the same experiences. I learned that many lived under the fear of constant disapproval. They knew that they were somehow lacking in their mothers’ eyes: not smart enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough or unable to attract the right friends or mates. I listened while they shared stories of picking the wrong college, wrong spouse, or wrong job. How they were raising their children wrong. Sometimes, my friends talked of little jibes taken hard, or big rejections ignored.
Naturally empathetic, I found myself unable to play that role in this conversation. What could I say? I honestly struggled to find moments in my life when I felt that my mother was disappointed in me. Certainly, there have been times in my life when I was disappointed in myself; like everyone, I lived throughout the self-esteem wars of junior high school and I’ve had hard classes, difficult bosses and cooking disasters. But, Mom? If she thought I was on the wrong path, she never let me in on the joke.
There was one aspect of my personality that was always a bit of a challenge for us, though. My mom is a stylish, attractive woman. Even now in her sixties, she always looks put together, perfectly matching clothes and shoes to any given situation, joking that she feels naked without earrings. This talent did not pass to me. While I have learned to present myself well in the business world, I dislike clothes shopping, wear things until they fall apart and (until recently) had exactly one pair each of black, brown and navy dress shoes.
While I was in college and home on a break, I shared with my mother that I had always struggled with being inadequate in this area. That I knew how much she had wanted to share her interest in clothes, jewelry, make-up and dolls (which thankfully you can abandon after girlhood) with me, and that I failed her in both passion and skill. I still remember that conversation clearly, in her bedroom in the house I lived in through junior high and high school and into college.
“Melissa,” she said, “I may not have gotten the daughter I asked for, but I got the daughter I wanted. A strong girl who could make her own decisions and set her own path. Someone who could take care of herself, and still take care of others. I learned a long time ago how lucky I was, and I have never been disappointed.”
I am confident that without my mother I would not have chased after great opportunities, and would have languished in horrible failures. She has an uncanny ability to get right to the root of the matter and make the decision obvious:
- No longer getting passion from running: quit.
- Want to go to a college no one from your school has been to: apply.
- Picked the wrong graduate program: drop it.
- Found the right one: go and kick butt.
According to my mom, every zig and zag along my life path has been brilliant and perfect — every success completely predictable, every failure an opportunity to grow. She has a way of making me feel like the master of my destiny; I am very blessed.
Now I am a mother, a surprising gift for a girl who never thought that a family would be a part of the equation. I know I don’t measure up, but I’m not sure what to do about it. My mom and I were opposite sides of the same coin, both passionate loving people, one hard as steel and one soft as satin. My daughter and I are the coin cut in half, both certain of our rightness in any circumstance and willing to argue it to the end. Perfectionists who are only happy being number one, worried all the time that we won’t be good enough. How can I possibly give my daughter the confidence and support my mother gave me, when I don’t have her skill? Why is it I can’t give my daughter the chance to have her successes and failures without so much critique? It never felt like critique when she did it, just wisdom. How can I do that?
Of course, I have asked Mom for advice and her response was completely predictable. She agrees that I’m not the same kind of mom that she was, but that’s fine because I’m my kind of mom. Naturally, she says smiling and hugging me tight, I’m a great one.