Sometimes the words “thank you” get lost in the day to day. So in honor of Valentine’s Day, Babble is featuring content all month long that celebrates those special people (and moments) that make it all worth it. Click here for more on #BabbleThanksLove.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s a question we all heard hundreds of times throughout our childhoods. Those 10 little words held within them all the weight of possibility, all the hope for our futures. Whether you answered “astronaut” or “plumber,” “teacher” or “firefighter,” there was no doubt in your mind that you could be anything you wanted to be.
Personally, I wanted to be a legal secretary. I would spend hours sitting at my mother’s desk, “filing” important papers and making very serious calls on a phone that was most likely unplugged from the wall.
My mother, at that point a stay-at-home mom with three kids, would speak often of her pre-kid “glory days” working at a law office in Manhattan — and I wanted to be just like her. Had she been a doctor, a lawyer, or an acrobat, I probably would have had vastly different career goals at that age. But when you’re young, your dreams are only as big as your imagination, and often your scope of the world is limited by what you see before you.
As I grew older, my view of the world and my ideas about my own possibilities expanded and changed. At times I wanted to be a museum curator, a fashion merchandiser, or a Victorian literature professor. With each changing passion, my mother supported me from the sidelines, never favoring one avenue over another — always letting me choose my path and find my own way.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I truly began to understand why.
My mother didn’t have the same hopes that I did growing up. She wasn’t told she could be anything she wanted to be — she was told what everyone around her thought she could be.
“You don’t have the right body for ballet,” a nun once told her. She had wanted to take a ballet class in the basement of her Catholic elementary school, but was discouraged because she didn’t have a typical dancer’s body. So she never danced.
“You’re not college material,” a guidance counselor told her, years later. It was her senior year of high school and even though she was a voracious reader who loved to write, she struggled with math and science. So my mother, one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, never went to college.
She was forever being told all the things she couldn’t do — and making life decisions, both big and small, around the expectations others set for her.
So when she was raising my brother, my sister, and me, she made sure we never felt the same sort of glass ceiling she lived under. My brother joined gymnastics and Boy Scouts. My sister and I studied ballet, living out the dream she abandoned decades prior. We all played musical instruments and we all picked up and dropped hobbies when they ceased to be what we wanted.
When I would complain about late-night ballet rehearsals and cello recitals, I viewed them as a burden. I didn’t see them for what they were: a privilege, a chance to find myself — something my mother didn’t always have.
But when I was 8, my mom opened a small store — a dancewear store — and worked to grow it into a thriving local business in the years that followed. She knew nothing about business going into it. She didn’t know how much inventory she would need to get through a busy back-to-school season. She didn’t know if she was ordering the right brand of ballet tights for all the different dance schools in the area. And she certainly didn’t know the best way to deal with a difficult customer.
But she worked hard. She still works hard — sometimes seven days a week. For 20 years now.
I’ve never shared her same passion for business, but working alongside her from high school through college taught me so many invaluable lessons that have shaped who I am as a woman and as a worker.
She taught me how to be kind to others even when they are hellbent on making you cry.
She taught me how to give my undivided attention to the person in front of me and go above and beyond to give them the care and service they deserve.
She taught me that hard work is not necessarily rewarded immediately but if you never give up, it will be worth it in the end.
She taught me that people will always underestimate you. But as long as you never underestimate yourself, you have nothing to fear.
She taught me how to value the small things in life — whether it’s a walk by the river or a warm cup of tea in the afternoon.
And perhaps most importantly, she taught me that if I want to, I can. Just like she has.
I look back now and I string together all the stories she told me of all the times she was told “no,” all the times her dreams were dismissed, all the missed opportunities she had to “find” herself. I look at the woman she has become and the woman I have become because of her, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
I have achieved all that I have because I had someone who believed that I could, and I know that the dreams I still have for my future are not just “dreams,” they are goals. So days, weeks, or years from now — however long it takes to meet them — I won’t be saying, “Told you I could, Mom.” I will be saying, “Thank you for knowing that I could.”