(I am posting this essay two days early in honor of Mother’s Day.)
“Part of the reason [motherly advice] bugs us as daughters is because our mothers are so powerful in our lives. They loom like giants. The reason mothers keep at it is because they’re so powerless. They cannot get you to do what is so obvious to them you should do.” –Deborah Tannen, author of the book You’re Wearing That?: Mothers and Daughters in Conversation
Motherly advice. Can’t live with it; can’t live without it. And as I have found out after having children of my own: can’t help but do it.
For many, motherly advice is often the best advice you will ever receive, and also the very hardest to hear. For that reason, and with a nod to the Mother’s Day holiday, I sent out a request asking my friends and acquaintances for the best advice they received from their mother. A few people wrote the equivalent of a love letter about their mom. Some confessed that they and their mother walked a bumpy road, but that there were some nuggets of wisdom passed along the way. Over half the recipients either didn’t respond, or emailed me to say that they were sorry, but they were unwilling to venture in the quicksand of thoughts about dear ol’ mum. No matter what the response, when it came to the issue of mothers and their advice, emotions were strong and heartfelt.
“Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.” –Ambrose Bierce, journalist and satirist
Some motherly advice is practical, and during our childhood becomes so engrained in our brains that we can’t help but incorporate it into our adult lives. Because of her mother, Jillene is a slave to butter. “My mom was raised as a farm girl. Only real butter was EVER used in her house and never sparingly!!”
Carrie’s mother never put a cooking pot on the table. Carrie writes, “We were lower middle class, but she always kept everything beautiful and clean. I still set the table and put all the food in pretty serving dishes. It drives my husband crazy, all those extra dishes, but I think it makes dinner special.”
My mom would agree. It was unheard of to put a bottle on our dining room table. Even catsup was served in a little dish with a spoon. I don’t remember a paper plate or plastic cup ever crossing our threshold. To this day, I could no more serve a meal on disposable dishware than I could eat with my elbows on the table, another tidbit of advice I heard daily.
Mary Lou wrote that her mother, who raised six children practically on her own, was a patient and funny woman who doled out advice that was sensible. The best being: “Always be sure to rinse the soap off of all dishes thoroughly [if not you will get diarrhea].” I couldn’t resist. I googled this nugget of wisdom to see if there was any merit to the dishsoap/diarrhea claim. I was greatly amused to find that this is a hotly debated online topic. In tribute to Mary Lou’s mother, I have been giving my dishes an extra good rinsing lately.
Diane, owner of the local used bookstore, discovered some motherly advice in a postcard tucked between the pages of a book from an estate sale. The postcard reads: “We heard on the kitchen front the other day that it is not wise to bottle blackberries as some kind of poison forms. You had better find out from a food office. I think it was about a fortnight ago we heard it. Love, N.E.T.” Diane adds, “Now that’s a mom worrying if I ever heard one!”
A lot of the motherly advice I received were one-liners: “Don’t hit your sister;” “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all;” “Always unbutton buttons and zip zippers before putting your clothes in the washer;” and “Chew with your mouth closed, you weren’t raised in a barn.” Every time I left the house my mom called out, “Act like a lady.” This from the woman who played Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” at top volume, and encouraged us to get educated, start a career, and THEN find a mate.
But the one-liner I’m going to tuck in my pocket for when my girls are a little older came from Paige. She wrote that her friend’s mother used to shout at her daughter as she went out for the evening, “Keep your belt on!” According to Paige, the mother didn’t want her daughter having sex with her boyfriend. Nothing quite as effective as hearing your mother’s voice in your head when someone goes for your belt.
Diane wrote that her mother taught her the perfect motherly advice because it is THE answer to all motherly advice. She writes, “My mother always taught us to answer unsolicited or outlandish advice with a smile and ‘good idea!’ No promises to comply, no justification, just acknowledge all that shared wisdom and move on. Of course, she recognizes when I do it to her, and sometimes laughs, sometimes not.”
“Some mothers are kissing mothers and some mothers are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same.” –Pearl Buck, writer
Sometimes we weren’t initially appreciative or ready for the advice our mothers so freely loaned us. Lyn wrote that whenever she had a heartache or a bad day, didn’t get the job or had the flu, her mother always said, “And this too shall pass.” Lyn writes, “At the time, I would have preferred a hug, a shoulder to cry on, a tissue, or an ice cream cone to soothe my soul, but now, as I reflect back on those agonizing years, I wish that I would have had the maturity to realize the wisdom behind my mother’s words. Those hurtful, hard times DID pass and made way for new opportunities.”
Jenny has a similar story. She writes, “I must have been complaining that I was bored or there was nothing to do. I vividly remember my mom telling me that someday I was going to wish that I had this time back to appreciate and to use for something fun. Kind of a 70’s version of ‘The Power of Now.’ As a grownup, I definitely have a commitment to making the most of the time I have.”
Some found that they needed to read between the lines to fully understand their mother’s advice. On her wedding day, Jillene’s mother told her, “If you each put 110% into your marriage, it will be a good one.” Jillene writes, “She was right, but unfortunately that marriage ended in divorce. What was not said, I think, is that you have to give 110% of what is important to your partner. That’s not always what is important to you, and so the 110% you are giving may be totally missing your partner’s mark.”
Carrie wrote of her mother, “My mother and I are very close. She was seventeen when I was born and always said that we grew up together. She always told me that I was beautiful and smart so I could be anything I wanted to be, but it would be up to me to make the right choices. She told me that no matter what you do, there will always be some people who just do not like you. You can’t fix it, and it is not your fault, so just let it go. If you try to please those people, it will make you crazy.”
Billie also gave advice to her daughter about how to make her own way in the world. Writes Jara, “She would tell me that just because someone says something that doesn’t make it true. She said I should form my own judgements and do my own thinking.” Billie raised her two children on her own after her husband died. Perhaps because of this, Jara says that her mom taught her that “it’s important to buck up and be tough when necessary. It’s ok to be pampered, but when the time comes to take action or to make decisions or do the hard work, every woman needs to be prepared and mentally ready to do so.”
The advice I now most appreciate from my mother, I hated while growing up. My mother insisted upon hand-written, timely thank-you notes. Her philosophy was: if someone did something nice for you, they needed to be thanked in writing. I remember one holiday season, when I was in 5th grade, breezily whipping off my notes. I had it down to a single sentence: “Thanks for the gift! Love ya, Missy.” Upon inspection, my thank you notes and myself were sent back to my room to be redone in a more thorough and heartfelt fashion. I was beyond frustrated at the time, but the lesson stuck. I recognize now that my mom wasn’t just teaching me good manners, she was also teaching me about gratitude. She was giving me a lesson in appreciating not only the gift, but the giver, and helped me to realize how very lucky I was to have both.
“A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” –Dorothy C. Fisher, educator and social activist
Sometimes the best advice is no advice at all. Writes Corrie Kate, “The best advice my mom gave me was nothing. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Most of the time my mom just listens, and lets me figure things out for myself.” Corrie says the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words,” reminds her of her mom. “I find myself always thinking, ‘Did my mom do this? Or, how did she handle us when we behaved this way?’”
Ron wrote that his mother “played the violin and later viola well enough to be a member of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra.” He fell asleep at night listening to her practice, and, in doing so, learned to appreciate classical music. “Mom always put herself wholeheartedly into whatever she did. Whether it was preparing a picnic, doing yard work and gardening, writing poetry, taking care of family, taking care of household accounts, bill-paying and working as a medical secretary during World War II, visiting her parents, planning and playing music in church, and myriad other things, she always gave her all. . . .I’m sure my satisfaction with doing things came from both my parents. By example–not lessons. I was lucky.”
By watching her mother, Mary learned the valuable life lessons such as “be gracious and humble, be kind (even when it’s most difficult), give of oneself daily to community and to friends, resist using credit cards, read lots of books, and know what’s going on in the world.” Mary says that her mother also taught by example, “never by lecturing.”
Jillene writes that her mother “had a fabulous personality. She taught me to be kind, happy, to love reading, and gave me a deep love of cooking.” Susan says that “I know my mom loves me, and I always knew that my whole life. It is a constant that has made me strong, and I’ve never had to doubt that. That is not necessarily advice, but I feel lucky to have her as a mom. What my mom wanted out of life was to be a mom…some may find that boring, but I have benefited from it.”
Overall, the best mothering tidbit came from Olivia, who is in eighth grade and wise beyond her years. She said, “If you can use it, here is a really great John Lennon quote about advice from his mother: When I was five years old, my mother told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Because really, isn’t happiness all a mother truly wants for her child? Isn’t that what motherly advice is all about?
(For some excellent essays on mothers and mothering moments, check out http://www.oprah.com/relationships/Great-Moments-in-Mothering-Life-Lessons-Learned-from-Moms/print/1.)