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Powerful Lessons My Mom Did Not Teach Me

Mama duck

My mom left out a few lessons that a lot of other kids got.  Certain common habits, I just never developed because nobody taught me.

In the last few years I’ve become more and more interested in people, and I pay more attention to passers-by when I’m out and about.  One thing that always enthralls me is seeing children learn from their parents.  A wide-eyed and curious child, watching his mother’s actions and words, is a powerful sight to behold.  It affects me today in ways it never had before.  Now that I’m older and firmly in the habit of examining my habits, I can see how crucial those moments are in shaping a kid’s life.

What the parent does in those moments, in front of her vulnerable, impressionable child, is a far-reaching act of creation.  How she interacts with her own world is probably the greatest factor in determining how that child will deal with his own life when he’s free to make his own decisions.

There are certain common lessons I see a lot of parents giving their kids that I now realize I missed out on.  I suppose in many instances, parents don’t realize they’re even teaching anything at all; they’re just doing their own thing.  But kids are like sponges, relatively free of preconceptions and far more impressionable than adults.  They are rarely preoccupied like we adults usually are, and they’re always watching.

Some kids learn that they should yell and smoke cigarettes when they get upset.  Some learn that their problems are their estranged father’s fault.  Some are learn that their neighbor is a “fucking prick.”  Some are taught that they’re bad people if they don’t go to church.

We don’t choose our parents.  We emerge involuntarily from nonexistence, into a household we didn’t choose, to be cared for by the people who just happen to be there.  Some of us luck out, and some of us get a real bum deal.  Obviously, being born is not a consequence to anything we’ve done, so what our parents end up teaching us about life is just a matter of chance.  Whether one hits the jackpot, or rolls snake-eyes, nobody really deserves the parents they get.

I won.

A few years ago I hit a real rough spot in my life.  I was frustrated and scared and I didn’t know what to do.  My mom had taught me so much, but I was facing a dilemma I’d never faced, and I had to undergo some painful trial and error to find my way out.  Her advice and support really took the edge off much of the time, but I think it was what she didn’t teach me that really saved me from total disaster.

Some people end up learning some pretty self-destructive ways to respond to troubling circumstances.  If I’d been taught to approach life with more impulsive philosophy, I might have self-destructed completely.  I see people teaching their kids these things all the time, and it breaks my heart.

Thank you Mom, for never teaching me:

…to indulge in vices

I’m 28 now, and I’m exiting my “young and stupid” phase.  The older I get, the more I realize how essential alcohol and cigarettes are in the day-to-day lives of so many adults.  For many, they’re the go-to source for entertainment, stress relief, and celebration.  I won’t begrudge anyone that, but I know that if I grew up watching my mom excuse herself for a cigarette after supper all my life, I’d be doing it too.  She always made it clear to me what a reasonable indulgence was, and never took any of them to excess or abuse.

In the apartment across the hallway, maybe three our four evenings a week I hear noisy adults arriving, one by one.  Usually I’m writing quietly at that time, and by nine or ten, they’re howling and swearing and clinking bottles.  Now and then, the party will go conspicuously silent for a moment, and I’ll hear the unmistakable murmur of a parent ushering a small child back to bed.

The idea of my mom mixing herself double whiskeys after work, or eating Doritos front of the TV for hours is absurd to me, but for some kids, it’s life lessons.

…to blame and complain

My mother has always been a woman of action.  That was always her response to adversity: to do something about it, never to resent someone or whine.  I cannot even imagine her holding a grudge or having an enemy.

There are people in my life, past, present, and certainly future, whose initial response to adversity is always to identify who is at fault for it.  They will explain to you exactly how someone else is wrong, and what they should have done instead.  This is normal in our culture.  On the news I often hear, “Today, (enter fiasco here) occurred in Washington.  Who’s to blame?  Who should be fired/charged/impeached/embargoed?  The people want answers.”

It seems like my mom’s concern, instinctively, was always what she should do, not what others should do.

..that I should believe anything without question

I was never prescribed any religious or political beliefs.  I was never dragged to a religious institution, or told who “we” vote for.  There were no “absolute truths” handed to me and my sister to try and make fit into our lives.  We were allowed — and encouraged — to discover the world for ourselves and interpret it on our own.  She didn’t tell us what to believe, ever.

I grew to realize that beliefs are personal, and it makes no sense to adopt a predefined package of them.  You have to feel them out and agree only on your own volition, or you’ll be living a lie.

…that different is bad

I remember one day on the playground in grade one when one kid said, “When men love men, that’s called a faggot.  That’s what my dad said.”  I heard kids parroting similar lessons with other nasty words, and I always wondered why a parent would say those things at all, let alone in front of their kids.  I was spared the curse of being taught that people and ideas I didn’t understand were deserving of my ridicule or disdain.

I had a friend whose mom was nervous about letting him play with too many kids who weren’t Greek.  Another friend’s mom told us we had to leave because we were playing a devil’s game in her basement (it was a board game called HeroQuest.)

…who I’m supposed to be.

Never once has my mother nagged me to become a doctor, find a wife, produce some grandkids, or stop doing anything I love.  Whenever I had an interest, she supported it.  Whenever I quit something that I didn’t think was right for me, she supported that too.

There was no master plan for me to be anything in particular, I know that.  She always put my dreams for me ahead of her dreams for me.  I suppose her dreams for me are my dreams for me.  How respectful.  I have known many people who were never extended that same freedom.

Now I’m not saying my Dad taught me any of these nasty things either, but this Sunday is Mother’s Day, and I know she’s reading.  I also know that there are a few people out there who, this Sunday, will not feel like they have as much to celebrate.

“You don’t need to get me anything for Father’s Day.  Father’s Day was invented by the Hallmark greeting card company.  But Mother’s Day is different.  Never forget Mother’s Day.”  ~ My Dad


Photo by reebs

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Hannah December 22, 2012 at 11:38 am

David, thank you so much for sharing this post! (I know, it was a while back. I’m steadily making my way through your archives.)

I notice that I am immediately weary of any posts that express gratitude or appreciation toward mothers, because I often feel like I was dealt “snake eyes” in that regard. However, after reading this I have a new perspective! I don’t have much of a relationship with my mother, but she could have imparted much worse than she did. She taught me a few key valuable lessons that I still hold close to my heart, even if she didn’t necessarily demonstrate those lessons herself.

Our parents do the best they can with the resources they have. It helps to remember that they’re human, and not everyone is capable of examining their lives with strong and discerning lenses. It’s hard work — acknowledging truth. It leaves us in that uncomfortable open space of choice: step into the discomfort and pursue growth, or fall back into familiar, “comfortable,” but ultimately disintegrative.

P.S. something I am working on is letting go of perfectionism, so I’m going to try to ignore the voice that tells me all my commentary and feedback is useless (not good *enough*). I always have so many thoughts on your posts — I’ll try to share more without judging them :)

David December 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Take it from me, an outside observer: your feedback is good! I appreciate your thoughts here and I hope to see more from you in the comment sections.

Mark March 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm

“Obviously, being born is not a consequence to anything we’ve done, so what our parents end up teaching us about life is just a matter of chance. Whether one hits the jackpot, or rolls snake-eyes, nobody really deserves the parents they get.”

Those who believe in reincarnation would say you get the life you earned in the last one. In vedanta, there is the idea that the universe is just and that all that happens is compulsory. The only thing you have any volition over is how you think. Your opinions of what happens are the karmic seeds of future fruits of cause and effect. Of course no one “proves” this empirically, it’s a way to view the world that helps make sense of suffering.

From reading your posts on headlessness I am sure you are aware of the idea that who we truly are is not our bodies, but that we emanate from a void into the manifest world. Since our true self is unmanifest, the only “action” it can perform is where its attention goes. This perspective doesn’t “work” for everybody, but that’s why it’s a perspective.

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