An Interview With The Greatest Human on Earth… My Mom
I’m not crying, you’re crying!
This is a hard one to introduce.
This week, in celebration of mothers everywhere, I decided to interview my own mom — and New Stand member — Madelyn Byrne Willems. This woman raised two children. One, a talented, charismatic, kind, and all-around fantastic human being — my little sister, Alexia — and myself… I’m OK.
It’s through her kooky personality, her tireless pursuit of ambitious goals, and her fierce refusal to compromise her values, that she instilled in us a firsthand appreciation of feminism. And it’s in partnership with our absurdly French father, that she taught us to gravitate towards and enjoy life’s pleasures, to laugh in the face of embarrassment, and to believe in ourselves and the endeavors to which we dedicate our time.
When you have a mother like her, one so generous with her love, you very easily lose the perspective that parents are people too, emotional, flawed, and insecure people. The act of raising two very different, very difficult, children — myself, the poster child for ADHD, and my sister, Queen of Tantrums — came naturally to her. And it’s only in retrospect that we can appreciate the fact that she did this in-tandem with the founding of her own successful business. To us, our mom is the original badass bitch.
Below is my interview with her. I hope you take the time to read it and appreciate her for the remarkable person that she is. I also hope this piece provides you the opportunity to reflect on the important women in your lives and thank them for all that they have done for you.
Thank you, Mom. For everything. I love you.
MOM! This is weird. What’s the best way to start? With your childhood?
OK, great. You’ve got five sisters, and you were part of a military family. How do you think that shaped the person you are today?
Being in a large military family meant two things: order, discipline, and planning.
That’s three things.
With five sisters, I felt my mom didn’t have the time to devote to me as I needed. We did things as a group, whether walking down a street in a new city — in three rows of two — holding each others’ hands. Or having our father roust us every morning, calling it ‘reporting for duty’. Each of us yelling out ‘Yes sir!’
How it affected me is that I only wanted a few children, not six, so you would feel I was totally available for you always.
I also wanted you guys to have as much chocolate as was reasonable in your lives.
Chocolate was your parenting compass?
Yes! I begged for chocolate from a young age and sneaked it whenever possible. If there’s a world expert in licking all the icing off a chocolate cake so no one could tell, it was me. I couldn’t get enough and used every cent of my allowance to buy chocolate covered raisins and hide while eating them so I didn’t have to share with my sisters. Making it available to you and letting you know you could have chocolate or desserts if you wanted was so important to me.
And what about your mom? Tell me more about her influence on you.
My mother was the most organized person in the world. She would have been an excellent officer or manager herself, but it wasn’t her time.
Looking back, she worked so hard! Having each of us recite the multiplication tables while she braided our hair, making us take ‘touch typing’ when we were twelve as a life skill, enrolling us in new schools every one, two, and three years depending on how often dad was transferred. Finding places to live, furnishing them only to move again shortly after. Sewing our clothes and lengthening and shortening curtains endlessly.
She was good at it, but she never really wanted to be a housekeeper! She wanted to run a company or run a government office. She’d have these written arguments with the IRS and she’d win.
She was the first feminist with nowhere to go, and she gave us some hard earned advice: “Never tell a man you can type because they’ll want you to be their secretary.”
World War II meant she escaped farm life in Kansas, and although she excelled at everything she did, it was always in a secondary role. When I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Stanford Business School, she wasn’t even sure what an MBA would mean for my future, but she was so proud I wasn't typing for a living.
So how do you think this affected your sisters? How does your approach to raising children differ from theirs?
I thought my sisters would have the same parenting style in every way, until we started vacationing together when you kids were older.
Maybe it’s because I married a traditional Frenchman and moved to Europe. There were different standards: for some of my sisters, it wasn’t important to eat together at dinner, every single night. Things are more casual in the US than in France.
For us and for my in-laws — your grandparents…
Yeah, I got it.
…We always ate together. And it was a good idea. On the other hand, at the core, all my sisters raised their children teaching the importance of education, respect, honesty, hard work and understanding.
Now, I’d like to talk about this driving attitude of yours. In its best context, it’s a determination to prove naysayers wrong, in its worst, it… maybe manifests itself as an aggressive chip on your shoulder. Do you think that’s unique to you?
Good question! I think the drive is because our father nearly died in an auto accident when I was twelve, and for several years I was afraid he would be kicked out of the Air Force just short of his full pension — and we would end up in the poor house. I was so worried we wouldn’t have any money, that a major drive was to never be that scared again. Work hard and earn money. I think it happens to a lot of kids with a similar fear.
In terms of the combativeness, it wasn’t a good thing, that’s for sure! I remember at one point when I was nine or ten saying to myself: ‘Pat, sister number one is the oldest; she naturally gets a lot of attention. Carolyn, number two is dad’s favorite. Kathleen, number four is ‘the nice one’. Colleen number five is the free spirit. Lisa number six is the baby and the most loved.
So what’s my role? Who can I be to be noticed? The fighter — as my mom once said ‘the mean one.’ If you ask a psychologist, they would probably say it was my way of being noticed.
I had to work on my temper a lot in business, but my strong convictions and argumentativeness was a huge positive in my career. I was one of the only females in investment banking and equity sales, a business dominated by alpha males. Other women left the field, but my fighting instinct paid off. In terms of raising you, one of your teachers called me a force of nature when I went to bat for you — but in a positive way.
How did you juggle work with the responsibilities of motherhood?
It wasn’t easy to juggle both, and there’s a deep guilt that I didn’t give you and your sister enough attention or time. It’ll never go away and I don’t really talk about it, but like most women I secretly ask ourselves whether we could have given more time, more attention.
On the good side, it kept me sane. When I would drop you off at the Lycée Français each morning, it felt wonderful to be heading to more important things than coffee with French mom cliques who would score other mothers’ hair, dress, and shoes. I had more serious stuff to do. Also the reality of a pressured job, client relationships, business crises, gave me a much better perspective I think.
I could sympathize with teachers who were really trying to do their best. I wasn’t afraid to introduce myself to other moms and ask questions — didn’t bother me at all if they thought I was weird.
What are some lessons you wished you’d known before you had kids? What would you like to impart to other mothers?
Guilt is such a dominant factor in women, especially ones raised Catholic — I felt like I was always going to hell for something, except for about ten minutes after Saturday confession —that my lesson or advice would be to tell women to ‘do what you want to do. If you want to stay home and raise your children full-time, go for it!’ don’t feel guilty and don’t feel you’ve lost your career or value.
The most amazing thing about this day and age is women are living longer and longer — and unlike men, they don’t want or have to retire at age 65. They can and want to keep on working. At the same time, smart companies are realizing the value of these educated women who can come back to the work place and really contribute. Companies are starting to recruit them back and universities are helping train women on how to use their amazing skills to find their new career.
What do you think was, for lack of a better term, your guiding philosophy when raising me? Did that change for Alexia?
My guiding philosophy was to let you know we loved you completely and without reservation, that we believed in you a million percent and that we would always be there for you. I’d noticed that your brain worked extremely well when you had a crisis or a problem to solve, like when you got in trouble for not finishing your homework and broke records to do so.
I remember telling you you’d be an excellent Emergency Room Doctor because of how fast you could think things through and you answered that you would be a failure in life — you literally said that — because you only got mediocre grades at the Lycée and were usually in trouble for forgetting something.
I’m doing better now!
Right! Well I knew they were wrong — but mostly it broke my heart that we had let you stay in the French system for too long. Where the goal is to show kids what they’re doing wrong, not what they did right. Where you’re punished for being different, where only the top three percent can succeed — and where anyone who learns differently is a failure.
I resolved to pull you out of that environment as fast as possible, get you tested for ADHD and find a solution. We did it. Of course you had ADHD just like me and my father and others in our family. And just like them, you were intelligent. You broke the rules. You even stopped taking Ritalin without telling us and developed techniques to get back on track!
Right, and I’m still thankful to [my Student Learning Disabilities mentor] Mr. Smith for helping me with that.
You need to email him!
Good idea. What about Alexia?
Our method with Alexia was different — she had brains like you, but she could follow the French curriculum, memorize, and score well on tests. But we’d done her a disservice, because she wasn’t a problem! She needed more time and recognition in a positive way, just like you were getting it, often in a negative way. Our chance for Alexia really came in your last years of High school, when you didn’t need our attention. And for her the needs were equally important but different.
First, Alexia learns very differently from you. She sees things differently and her approach to a solution can be unique, but it works. She figured out math problems differently. I’d watch her do them and she ‘carried’ the numbers and set up equations differently — sometimes adding steps but often deleting them. And it worked! I didn’t understand how she figured them out, but for her it was natural.
Second, she has the kindest heart in the world; friends of hers are friends for life. She didn’t know how to deal with mean girls in middle school or high school. And they were cruel. That was the only time in my life I wished she had my ‘chip’ — but Alexia didn’t have the angry gene. I tried to tutor her in memorizing phrases for a nasty response. Things like ‘Oh yeah, you’re so cool. Cooler than the hairs on a polar bear’s ass!’
I remember that!
But it didn’t’ work; she couldn’t memorize bitchiness — it just wasn’t in her makeup. So I drove her to school most mornings. And we talked. She talked, I listened. And she figured it out. And she showed ’em all. Got into an amazing university, and went on to blaze a trail like no one in her high school class. We knew we’d succeeded when one of her singing partners said she hates to walk home with Lex, because she stops every 30 feet to have a long and meaningful, funny conversation with someone she knows — literally 10 times in ten blocks.
I think that covers most of what I wanted to ask. Anything you want to mention before we hang up?
I don’t know if this will fit in the piece and don’t worry if it doesn’t.
One strange thing about being a mother involved a huge change in my makeup — completely unexpected. I completely stopped being scared of monsters and the dark, because this fear was replaced by momma bear. All my life, I was the sister who was scared of the bloody hand, the monster in my closet. Even into adulthood.
I didn’t realize this change had happened until it was put to the test. When you were six and Alexia still in a crib, someone broke into our house one night. I heard creaks as they opened Alexia’s bedroom door next to ours, then heard them climbing the stairs towards your bedroom. Steps were too heavy to be you or baby Lex. I called out and immediately the steps reversed and ran downstairs, running out of the house. I wasn’t scared at all, I was furious. How dare this person even come near your bedrooms! Called the police and looked for a golf club to protect you! So thank you for being born; I laugh at monsters now!
You’re very welcome. This was great.
Yeah, some really interesting questions that made me think.
Well thanks, I love you!
Love you too!
That’s it for this week’s Member Spotlight. Hope you enjoyed it. Like I said, my mom runs a business, Perfect Experiences, it’s like a classier version of AirBnB for Paris, London, and Italy. Check it out!