My Mother’s Inadvertent Lessons

Kathryn Pincus October 11, 2014
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There is an old adage about parenting that goes like this, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This saying does not capture my mother’s manner of parenting. While she was always there to lend a sympathetic ear, or even a little advice if I asked, my mother did not preach, lecture or judge. But unbeknownst to her, she taught me and shaped me every day through her actions.

My mother brought home and nursed to health injured and abandoned animals. She helped a Laotian refugee family come to America, find housing, employment and start a new life. She brought two young boys from a rough inner city neighborhood and challenging circumstances into our home every summer and made them our family. When she delivered Meals on Wheels to senior citizens in their homes, she didn’t just deliver the food, she stopped and listened and provided a bit of company. Without saying a word to me, by these deeds she taught me compassion, consideration, and the obligation to look out for and act on behalf of those who need a little help. She also taught me humility, appreciation for the things that I had and might otherwise take for granted, and the importance of treating all people with respect.

My mother grew up with the hardship of the Depression era coupled with the horrible loss of her father when she was a small child. As a young bride and mother she struggled through my father’s military deployment and his long illness in a military hospital in Germany. Then, she and my father soldiered on through the daily struggles of providing for and caring for six young children. I remember my mother clipping coupons and buying generic brand products as she loaded up a shopping cart at the supermarket. I recall my mother physically performing (along with my father) home maintenance and home improvement tasks because paying someone else to do them was out of the question. I remember her re-cycling clothing from child to child as one outgrew articles of clothing and the next smallest received them as hand-me-downs. I recall my mother sewing my graduation dress and prom dresses and even making her own dresses to wear to formal events in New York City that my father was expected to attend as an executive at a bank. These memories and circumstances had common themes however that will stick with me for life. I saw my mother doing these things with a smile, a laugh, love for the feeling of a job well done or the pure enjoyment of a moment as simple as a family dinner. As she solved problems, fixed things, or stretched a paycheck, she taught me resourcefulness, efficiency, problem solving, and tenacity. As she did these things with a smile, she taught me that you find happiness in the pure and simple things in life and in the appreciation for the things you have, such as genuine love, family, and good health. As she returned from grand fetes in New York looking radiant in her homemade dress, she taught me that it is not a designer name on the dress that matters but the light coming from the person wearing the dress that makes you beautiful to the people that matter.

While raising six children born in an eight year span, my mother had to break up our fights and field complaints from school principals, neighbors and even occasionally, the police. She had to decide when to intervene, when to discipline, when to tell my father and when to look the other way. Mom was steadfastly in our corner, yet she let us figure things out for ourselves and sometimes suffer from and therefore learn by our mistakes. As a result she taught me resilience, confidence and independence as I became an adult.

And while my mother helped us all through childhood illnesses and adolescent angst, high school and college trials and tribulations, and all other challenges and triumphs of our lives, she inadvertently gave me a roadmap for being a parent that goes like this: (1) As much as you love your children and you want them to always be happy, you must let go, let them fail and succeed, hurt a little, heal a little, explore, retreat, take risks, find rewards, and ultimately forge their own path; and (2) always, without hesitation, and even when they anger or disappoint, be there and ready to love them unconditionally.

My mother was not big on lectures, or criticism or opinions–and when she did speak it may have seemed like I wasn’t listening to her most of the time. But I was watching. I saw her, every day, be a person who taught me to strive for compassion, consideration, humility, appreciation for all of the wonderful things in my life, to love genuinely, to treat all people with respect, to be resourceful, efficient, tenacious and resilient, and to parent with the ability to let my sons forge their own paths, but with my unconditional love as a backdrop to their respective journeys.