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The A to Z's of Teenagers: M Is for Mother

I think about my mother more now than I ever did when she was alive. When she was alive, especially when I was a kid and a teenager, I hardly thought of her at all. She was just ... there. She was there when I woke up. She was there when I came back from school. She was there in the kitchen making dinner. She was there tucking me in at night. Where she was in between those times—and who she was—I had no idea. She never said, and it didn’t cross my mind to inquire. I don’t think I was even mildly curious.

Now I think about her all the time. I think about her every morning when I rise from sleep and, on automatic pilot, turn around and immediately make the bed. She taught me that. She enforced that. I think about her when I drink my morning Americano, remembering that she made espresso in a stovetop Melitta decades before there was a Starbucks on every corner. No one else’s mother drank espresso from a demitasse with a twist of lemon. And I think about her when I open the upper cabinet above the refrigerator and see the bottle of vodka. Vodka on the rocks was her drink. I didn’t know how much she drank, or why, until much later.

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My mother was, as all mothers are for their daughters, my single most powerful role model. I used to think that being a role model meant being the perfect example, the shining beacon of what to do and how to do it. But role models don’t have to be goddesses or saints. They can also illustrate what not to do, what paths not to travel, how not to live your life. And you have to honor them for that, too.

My mother taught me the importance of being there. She created a stable, predictable, safe home life with clean laundry and fresh bed linen and home-cooked dinners, with attendance at school plays and tennis tournaments. She took me clothes shopping. She quizzed me the night before tests. She was leader of my Girl Scout troop. She taught me how to hand-stitch a hem and how to execute a racing dive.

But she also taught me the danger of forgetting who you are, of losing yourself, of giving up on dreams, of settling into someone else’s vision of who you should be. She taught me, by her own financial dependence on my father, the importance of being self-supporting. She taught me, by her silence, by the way she never let me know who she was or who she had been or what she really cared about, the importance of sharing my true self with my own daughter. She taught me, by never expressing her doubts, by never exposing her flaws, how important it is for me to do just that, how essential it is for my daughter to see that I have struggles and challenges, that I falter and recover and falter again. She taught me, by her surrender, the importance of never giving up.

I don’t know how my daughter sees me. (But I may be about to find out.) But I hope that whatever she sees—the good and the bad—she is able to learn from it when the time comes for her to craft her own identity as a mother. I do know that “surrender” is not part of her vocabulary. So I may have done something right.

If I can get past the nag stuff, she is pretty much the best role model I can imagine.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

Being a mother is easy and awesome. You can be sexy and slim and have three kids. You have time to do everything. You know just what to say, and your kids listen. You know exactly how to solve problems. It just comes naturally.

Oh, wait. Being a mother is hell. You don’t have time to do anything for yourself. Your life revolves around your children who don’t listen to you, don’t appreciate you and generally behave badly. Your partner doesn’t give you a second glance. You feel caged.

Those are the two extremes I get from the media. It can really mess you up trying to look for role models who aren’t real people. When I was a little kid, the only mother I knew was my own mother. Now that I’m older and have lots of friends from different backgrounds, I know many different mothers. I know wealthy mothers who’ve never had to work. I know woo-woo mothers who don’t have their feet on the ground. I know a mom who had her first child when she was 16 and had to raise three kids on her own while working part-time and trying to finish school. I know moms who try really, really hard to look and act like their daughters. I know moms who want to be best friends with their daughters and kind of forget they’re mothers. I know moms who seem to live for their daughters and not themselves.

And then there’s my mom. She can be a bossy, controlling pest who nags me about keeping my room clean and doing my homework and getting exercise. (“You would sleep so much better if you exercised.” “You would have so much more energy if you exercised.” “Your life would be perfect if you exercised.”) You get the idea. Great advice but nag, nag, nag.

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But I have to admit, if I can get past the nag stuff, she is pretty much the best role model I can imagine. She’s super healthy and takes care of herself. She has a successful career but she also has spent a lot of time with me and my two brothers. She’s youthful. (But she doesn’t try to look like me! She has her own independent look.) She is powerful and stands her ground. I feel like she works for and earns my respect. She doesn’t say “Do it because I say so ... because I’m your mother.” She gives reasons. She helps me think things through.

Like mother, like daughter. Some day ... I hope.

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