Life (and Leaning) Lessons I Learned From My Mother

I read Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, several months ago. And I’ve been watching closely the firestorm of conversations — some validating her perspective, some vilifying it. But I’m not here to weigh in on either of those discussions. Instead I’m inspired by the many women I know in life and in business who are making change by being unapologetically brilliant every day. They are leaders, and thinkers, and experts, and innovators. But many of them are also moms. I can’t even have a conversation about ‘leaning in’ if I don’t acknowledge the woman who taught me what that meant, and the importance of the role of parents — and especially moms — in the lives and future leanings of young women. I have a hard time doing any leaning without considering all of the women that came before me and the trails they blazed. It was them that made this entire discussion possible. My mom was leaning in long before there was anything to lean in to. She was a woman with a career when that was actually something our culture found shameful.

Here are some things I learned from my mother that I’m grateful for every day.

My mother wasn’t concerned with me being a “girl.” She was pretty clear about the expectations that our culture had of women. She was clear on how we were sexualized and objectified, and we talked about that in a very matter of fact way from as far back as I can remember. My mother wanted me to be confident and smart more than anything.

My mom never wanted me to be a victim. Of anything or anyone. And she taught me pretty early that victim energy is destructive. If we succumb to that thinking we become our own worst enemy.

My mother taught me about money. She grew up relatively poor, but her parents were scrappy. My mother practiced prosperity consciousness and she saved money like crazy. She worried — like we all worry — about the details: making ends meet, paying her staff, and saving enough for retirement. But she never made those worries a burden on anyone else, and it was clear she always believed there would be enough. This belief in enough, that I inherited, makes me feel — most of the time — like things will always be fine.

My mother didn’t let convention stand in her way. She was the only kid in her family to get a college degree and then she went on to medical school. She was in medical school in the 50's when most women were getting married and having kids right out of high school. She went on adventures — practicing medicine on a Navajo Indian reservation and traveling out west in her VW bug. She paid her own way, worked really hard, and achieved pretty decent success. Along the way she never forgot where she came from and she never thought she was better than anyone else.

She was practicing medicine at a time when medicine was changing. But she didn’t change just because the whole system was shifting. She made house calls and sat with families while their loved ones were passing, and she cried when kids died senselessly. She valued the place she had in her patients’ families.

My mother cared. I remember sitting in her office once while she was talking to a patient on the telephone. Whomever it was had lost their job and couldn’t pay their bill. But my mom knew they had an awesome garden, so she told that family that if they would bring her some geraniums for her window boxes they could call that bill paid. She did stuff like that all the time but she rarely mentioned it.

For a long time she was on-call every other night and every other weekend and she’d be gone at all hours. She missed breakfasts and dinners and school plays and holidays. Sometimes, if I wanted to spend time with her, I’d ride with her while she made her rounds at nursing homes all over the county. I’d get to watch her in her element, and it always made me proud. On Christmas or Thanksgiving — it wouldn’t matter if she was on call or not — she’d visit the nursing homes or the VA just to make sure that people without families still had hugs and some humanity on the holiday. Sometimes I’d go with her and marvel at how she knew every old guy’s name, and that she could turn around and tell you their story. The world had forgotten them, but she remembered. She’d remind me, too, that we throw old people away. We value youth, almost too much. And we throw away the elderly when really they need to be revered, cared for and learned from.

My mom taught me that humor and humility were essential. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and her timing is impeccable. There’s no doubt that my own humor was cultivated in our family. Laughter was something we could count on, even in the worst of times.

My mom demonstrated confidence. She was opinionated and tough, and women like that weren’t always the favorites. I remember coming home when I was little and telling her I got teased because she was fat, and she didn’t really seem to care. She let it just roll off. Later she told me: people pick things that don’t matter when they are cruel. And that was the best these kids could do — they couldn’t say she wasn’t smart, or she hadn’t achieved important things, or that she wasn’t a good person. She told me that if the best they could do was call her fat, well, that said more about them than her and she wasn’t going to waste any energy on it. Criticism is tough. But my mom taught me the difference between criticism that mattered and should be considered and criticism that was just plain cruel.

My mother saw the world as being full of opportunity — especially for women. It wasn’t about what I looked like, it was about my brain, my desire to learn, the way I treated people, and my work ethic. Those were the things that mattered most. That was where I found my value.

She made me see that people come in all shapes and sizes. Gender was just one of the things that made us different from each other and those differences are good. My mother was assertive, sometimes aggressive and even sometimes misunderstood. But that’s because women often were, and still are, to be seen and not heard. There was an expected way of behaving that was entirely about gender norms, and she never conformed. She taught me what fork to use, where my napkin went, and what was expected of a ‘lady,’ but she also taught me the difference between etiquette and acquiescence. She made me believe that I never had to apologize for who I was as long as I was honest and decent.

My mother saw men as her equal. Like me, some of her best friends were men. She really respected and understood them, but she never considered herself less than them. She talked about the idea that we were living in a man’s world. And thought it was crap. I remember her yelling at the TV during a Wisk detergent commercial. Some woman was struggling with her inability to get the ‘ring around the collar’ out and the commercial had some other woman, or a dry cleaning professional, encouraging her to try Wisk for that pesky ring. Meanwhile my mother was yelling, “Wisk, my ass. Tell him to WASH HIS DAMN NECK. That’ll fix the ring around the collar. WASH HIS NECK!” I loved that about her.

My mother helped me see myself as successful and competent. She helped me feel like I never had to apologize for what I looked like or how I dressed. She encouraged me to value my intelligence and my ability above all else. She insisted on education. She loved that I was a voracious reader. She appreciated that I could hold my own in an argument (most of the time) and that I wasn’t scared of much. For those things, and for the example she set as a professional and a business owner, I am grateful to my mother. Today and every day.

She’s retired now, and living a much quieter life. But sometimes I think I’ll write a book about her. Because the stories she tells about being a young woman in med school in the 50's, or a female doctor when there were so few, or a working mom are amazing and really need to be shared. Because none of this “leaning in” is new. We’re just wearing different clothes.

*This was once a Mothers Day Facebook post I wrote for my mom. But something about the content made me want to share it with a broader audience.

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