You’re rolling your eyes at me as I say that, I know. Oh, honey, you’re saying. We’ve had this conversation a thousand times since I became a mother myself, and it has always played out in exactly the same way.
Thank you, thank you, I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, how hard this was. Thank you, I say.
And you say, you have always been the joy of my life, sweetie; I always wanted this, even when it was hard.
And then you say, I’m really glad that they gave us tranquilizers back then.
That you so loved motherhood was your greatest gift to me. That you were irreverent about motherhood was your second greatest.
You were as traditional as mothers come. You stayed at home and baked cookies (still the best in the world) and sewed our clothes (which will go down in history as the worst) and tucked us in every night with prayers and songs and tales of princesses and fairies and witches and dragons and talking badgers. And yet you subverted every instance of your traditionalness: you snuck raisins in the cookies just to bug me (you always said that I was funniest when I was mad), you made pointed exceptions in our prayers (you don’t have to ask God to bless Mrs. Goslin, sweetie, because she was really not a very nice lady this week) and I swear that you made us those matching polyester jumpsuits for your own personal amusement.
And the stories. My god, the stories.
You delighted in grabbing children’s attention with all things fantastic, and decided very early in your career as a mother that it was part of your job to keep the eyes of your own children and those of any children who accidentally wandered into range of hearing as wide as possible.
So it was that I grew up in a home in which it seemed entirely possible (no, not possible – a certainty) that there were sea creatures living in the plumbing and gnomes hiding in the closets. There were fairies and elves and imps and other magical creatures in the woods behind our house, and they lived in harmony with the animals there – the squirrels and birds and the raccoons and the skunks that I never saw but knew well from the tracks in our backyard, tracks that you were very careful to point out and explain as evidence of the late-night forest creature moondances that occurred a few times each month. I knew that the forest creatures kept the peace in their community through the frequent town-hall meetings that they held in a mossy stump – I knew this because you showed me exactly where they all sat during these meetings and held up various broken twigs and branches (used as benches) as evidence. I knew that I should never, ever pick toadstools, because if I did so I would be destroying the shelter of the littlest creatures of the forest.
I also knew that my sister and I came from a cabbage patch, and that if we unscrewed our bellybuttons, our bums would fall off.
I lived in a world rich with story. And you were the creator and caretaker and curator of that world, and you tended it with all the passion and commitment of St Benedict with his scriptoria. For all your irreverence, you regarded motherhood as sacred creative work, and made that work your mission. You wanted to raise curious, intelligent, funny children, children who looked at the world with big eyes and big hearts, children with imaginations on rocket fuel.
And you did.
I never wanted to grow up to be a stay-at-home mom, in part because you made sure that I knew that the world was vast and amazing and exciting and mine to explore. You made sure that I knew that I could do anything and be anything and that the limits of what ‘anything’ might be were defined only by my imagination and ambition. And I do know it, and have lived it, and now that I’m mom I know it even even more: that the core principle of your motherhood – that it is a condition of joy, and that its work is enriching and creative and good – is a principle worth carrying forward into my own mother, and my own life, regardless of how I shape or define the work of my own motherhood, and the path of my life. Whether I’m in a office or on a plane or at home by my children, this principle holds: approach it all with intention. Do it all in the spirit of joy. Recognize it all as an opportunity to move the story forward, to make that story richer and brighter and more amazing.
And I do.
We’re celebrating Mother’s Day by celebrating leaning in to motherhood, and by recognizing the extraordinary women that are our own mothers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own mother, or the mother who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning in to motherhood here. (Sheryl Sandberg’s letter is here.) And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.
Happy Mother’s Day!