I have often thought about what it must have been like for my own mother to be thrown into grandmotherhood at an early age. She was 38 when I did that to her and she took it remarkably well and went through some rapid stages of grief for losing her young daughter to teen parenting. I say “losing” because once I became a mother myself I was incredibly difficult to parent. How do you tell a 15 year old to go to sleep when her infant is fussing and keeping her awake at night? It drastically changed our relationship and I have, often, asked for her forgiveness for this. Suddenly, I went from being a know-it-all-teenager with a fabulous social life to a know-it-all-teen-mom with no life outside at all. All of the things she wished and hoped for my future were dashed and she painfully watched me struggle with knowing how to nurse and when, changing diapers and training my daughter for the potty, and teaching my child her ABCs while trying to read MacBeth for homework. She alone knows how reluctantly I went into motherhood and managed to turn it around from a hindering block to a stepping stone.
That more than explains the arrested development you claim to have with your pink hair, nosering, and why you have more tattoos that all 3 of your daughters combined. When people tell me about their “cool moms” I just laugh at them. You’re the real deal.
Mom? This one is for you.
You doubted yourself too much as a mom, but you did some great things for me in the short time that I allowed you. When people ask me where my confidence comes from, I tell them that it’s from you. The funny thing is that you told me once, when I was much older than the teen mom I used to be, that you don’t know how you ended up with three daughters who were that strong because you don’t see yourself as strong. That reminded me of another story you told me about the day I was born. You followed your heart into an interracial marriage and struggled with raising children who didn’t look like you in color but who have your eyes and arms and strong chins. When the nurse questioned why you put “mixed” on the race portion of my birth certificate, she challenged you in a way you hadn’t expected. Since you were tired from all that labor you gave in to her when she erased it and marked “white”.
You learned something very important from that experience that you shared with me often while I was growing up: you knew you were raising daughters that the world would see as “black” and you gave us every opportunity to know both sides of our family equally. You cautioned us and told us what people might say so that we were ready with a response should the time come. The time? Well, it came again and again and each of those taught me something. I was strong and confident and I still am. It’s because you wouldn’t allow it otherwise.
Mom, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without those lessons. That one about race and a million more that you taught me. Simple phrases to utter when things are unacceptable. Standing tall and proud with my chest open to the person I’m speaking to so that I display physical confidence, too. Most importantly, you taught me that we make mistakes with our children and that the most powerful piece of that is when we say, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t the best mom just now. I hope you forgive my mistakes and know that I love you very much.” When I was first starting out in motherhood on my own this was the thing that sustained me. My children have heard numerous apologies from me and I forgave myself for not always doing it perfectly. Yet, that wasn’t the goal. You taught me that.
No one can ever tell me what I am and, because of you, I won’t fit into someone’s lazy compartmentalization of a woman or mother. What that bigoted nurse taught you, you used to help raise me and Erin and Tracy and there’s nothing short of extraordinary about those lessons. I didn’t expect that you would offer challenges that would help my confidence grow, but you did and that allowed me to lean into being a mother, albeit a reluctant one at first, with every bit of confidence necessary for that daunting job. Thanks, Mom. I love you.
We’re celebrating Mother’s Day by celebrating leaning into 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 into motherhood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.
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