My Mother Did Everything Right. But Never Tell Her I Said So.

This Mother’s Day I decided to think through a few of the most valuable things I learned from my mom over the years.  Though it was mostly an exercise in clarifying my own experience to myself, I am going ahead and posting it because my mom really is the best mom in the world (sorry folks, but it’s time for real talk) and I think everyone should have the opportunity to learn from her.

1. You’re a whole person.

My mom has been a mother for 37 years and she still often answers the phone, “Bonnie Greenspan. I mean, mom. I mean, hi! What’s going on?” She has an iPhone, she knows who’s calling, but habit prevails and this habit (which always makes me roll my eyes and laugh) shows something important about my mom: she is Bonnie Greenspan first and most importantly. She has always held a lot of roles: wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, boss, employee, neighbor, and most recently (and favorite-ly) grandmother. The identity ‘Bonnie Greenspan’ is made up of all of these roles in combination. They rise and recede in relation to each other at different times, but she is on some level all things at all times. I have friends who can tell me the moment they realized their mom was more than just their mom; I’m proud to say my mom has always been more than just my mom.  

This is not an easy thing to navigate, as any woman living in the world knows, and balancing so many different roles can be dizzying and lead to very frustrating conflicts at times. I think it can be difficult to be a mom at work, for instance, but we spent a lot of time at my mom’s work as kids which gave us the opportunity to see her as a professional and an authority as well as introducing her co-workers to her as a mom. I think the world favors compartmentalization, but the truth is we are always in all of our roles, and the moments when we can inhabit them all simultaneously always feel to me like moments of authenticity and ease. I have no doubt that my mom struggled as much as anyone with how to integrate all of her roles, but now I have the advantage of growing up with someone who was either unwilling or unable to compartmentalize herself and as a result showed me what it looks like to operate as a whole person in the world.  

2. Just keep doing the next thing.

When I was a baby I was very sick, and my mom took on my full time care (in addition to her full time job and care of my toddler sister). In talking to her about it a few years ago, she said that there was a point where the people close to her held a sort of  intervention and expressed their concern that she wasn’t taking the inevitability of my death seriously enough. They were worried that she was putting too much effort into keeping me alive and that she needed to prepare herself for the fact that I was dying. In talking to me about it years later, she said that she did know I was going to die but what was she supposed to do? Stop feeding me? Just sleep through the next med dose? She told me that she just had to keep doing the next thing until there was nothing left to do. At that point she would live with whatever happened, but until that point she wasn’t going to be the one who quit.

I thought about that idea a lot when I was building the house. There were days when the to-do list was so overwhelming that I could barely drag myself out of bed to face it. But it made sense to me to think that I didn’t have to do it all, I just had to do the next thing. Whatever was next in line, just do that one thing and when it’s out of the way do the one thing behind it. There is the old quote “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” I grew up seeing that first hand. Well, never an elephant specifically, thankfully, but I certainly was raised in an environment where no task was too big to take on, you just had to hunker down and start plugging away at it.

3. Family comes first, and everyone is your family.

My mom is very close with her parents, seven siblings, siblings-in-law, nieces/nephews; all told, it’s quite a crowd. Her family has a strong culture of commitment: they show up not just for weddings and Christmas, but for graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, Thursdays. While time consuming, the amazing thing is that participation is not a performance. It never feels like we’re going through the motions (maybe the part of Christmas where we actually sing carols, but then it does sound pretty and ends up genuinely fun). When my uncle ran for office in his town, my mom and a few of my aunts flew out and spent days walking door to door handing out flyers for him. When I was building my house one of my aunts came up and spent the entire day in the pouring rain digging a 500 foot trench and helping me lay the power line in it. If your family is important to you, you show up for them. It’s not enough to talk about your values, you have to live them day to day.   

My mom relates to almost everyone she meets in this way, which can be utterly maddening. She used to come home from work at 11 PM and before she walked in the door she would stop at the elderly neighbor’s house across the street to check her blood pressure and make sure she’d taken her pills. My friends call my mom for medical advice and she’s infuriated when they don’t follow it because she really worries about them. Driving home from work in the middle of the night she stopped in a diner and overheard her waitress in the kitchen complaining that she needed to make $75 to cover the babysitter for the night; my mom left a $75 tip for her iced tea and told her she knew how hard it was to be a working mom. I used to hate how much she took care of other people and wish she would spend more time taking care of me, but the more I grew up and saw how insular other people’s caring can be the more I was dazzled by the bottomless depth of her compassion and energy. I learned from my mom how to look out for my family, and that everyone is my family.

I don’t think my mom set about teaching me any of these things in particular, but of course you don’t learn from what people say anyway. You learn who a person really is by what they do, how they live, what choices they make. And the bottom line is that while there are countless things I raged about growing up and just as many things my mom probably felt guilty about along the way, I genuinely like who I am. I like the life I've made and while from the outside it looks very different from my mom’s, from the inside it’s actually very similar and built entirely on lessons I learned from her about how to be a woman in the world. How to be a woman I’m proud of. Happy Mother’s Day, Bonnie Greenspan!