Lessons My Mother Never Taught Me

Holidays and Special Days Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

I’m writing this post from my front porch where I’m watching my almost nine-year-old daughter, Evelyn, teach my six-year-old daughter, Virginia to ride a bike. This afternoon has been all bad moods and tears, so it’s surprising to see them working towards a common goal. Even when this undertaking is handled by adults it has the capacity to bring all frustrated and bruised kneed parties to tears; yet there they are, teacher and student, laughing, motivating, trusting.  I have to say, this moment is 90% perfect.

The other 10% of this moment is filled with misgivings. There’s a part of me that feels negligent, as though I’m shirking my parental responsibility. Why did Virginia have to wait for Evelyn to teach her to ride her bike? Now when she looks back on this moment she’ll wonder to herself, “Why did Evelyn teach me to ride a bike?  Oh, I remember, because my mother never bothered.”

Mothers have a reputation for being self-critical and, clearly, I’m no exception. Although I’m 90% confident I’m a good mother, I’m 10% confident I’m going to screw up my kids. It’s the 10% of me that lies awake at night counting all the times I told Evelyn I’d play a game with her “in five minutes” and then secretly hoped she’d forget. Sometimes I go so far as to worry about my future failures, thinking I’ll undoubtedly botch my daughter’s teenage years and turn them into insecure, neurotic, directionless adults. This sets off a tailspin that naturally leads me to consider all potential ‘worst-case-scenarios’, and ends with me waking up my husband.

“Hey…Matt…are you awake?  

He is…I’m a terrible whisperer.  I realize he’s trying to sleep, so I get right to the point…

“If I die, you have to promise me you won’t marry someone awful. Whoever comes next, you have to make sure she will teach the girls the exact same things I would….okay?….Matt?…Are you awake?” 

His silence tells me he’s either fallen back asleep or he’s decided not to feed into my panic cycle.

Are my worries unreasonable?  Maybe, but those of you with dead mothers can at least understand where I’m coming from. Honestly, I think it’s far more rational for me to worry about the things I may never have a chance to teach my daughters than it is for me to angst about the missed minutia of days passed. I believe this to be true because my own mother skimmed over quite a few life lessons. If it had to get done, my mother did it.  If it was superfluous, she skipped it. 

lessons my mother never taught me

Today I look back on the many things my mother didn’t teach me, like how to cook, clean, wear makeup, do laundry properly, apply for insurance/financial aid/college/anything that requires an application, and laugh. While simultaneously longing for the motherly advice she would have presumably given me had she lived – things like how to raise my children, how to handle marital disagreements, how to balance being a working mother, how to grow old gracefully, how to be a grandparent, and the list will go on for as long as I live.  I don’t think I’ll ever shake the desire for her black-and-white, concrete input; even if it’s input that I’d disagree with and ultimately ignore.

When my mother was alive, I had an indestructible connection to a never-ending source of comfort, security, forgiveness, guidance, and reassurance.  When she died, these things seemed to die with her and I was cut loose in a world with no gravity. Adrift and directionless, I struggled to deal with the greatest tragedy of my charmed existence without the very person who, a year before, would have helped me get through it.  

If my mother had been able to help me cope with her death, I know exactly what she would have done.  She would have gone to Barnes and Noble and bought all the books she could find on grief.  Then she would have gone home and filled several yellow ledger pads full of research, which she’d later turn into a very long ‘concerned-mom-letter’ (my mother was famous for her ‘concerned-mom-letters’) and if nothing else, upon receiving it I would feel loved and reassured. 

I tell you, I could go around and around in this mother-daughter circle all day.  I’m a mother, then a daughter, then a mother, and back to a daughter. Feel and reflect, feel and reflect; it can get exhausting but it’s the only way I continue to learn. Where some people can pick up the phone and have new conversations and experiences, I have to go into the past and search for clues.  Perhaps I use these clues to invent my own truths about what my mother would say or do if she were here, but they’re useful truths nonetheless.

For example, I believe if my mother were here today she’d tell me to ignore the 10% of myself that lies awake at night worrying about being a bad parent. Maybe she’d point out how fondly her children regard her despite her shortcomings. Maybe she’d reassure me that as long as I give my daughters the things they need in life, like unconditional love and guidance, they will forgive my maternal imperfections. Chances are, I probably won’t ruin Evelyn’s teenage years and maybe, someday, Virginia will forgive me for not teaching her to ride that bike.

Now that’s pretty solid advice.

What are the lessons your mother never taught you?  Share with our readers below.

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25 Comments on "Lessons My Mother Never Taught Me"

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  1. Claudia  May 3, 2016 at 11:55 am Reply

    My mother taught me almost everything I’d need in life, but she never taught me, how to live without her.

    • Robin Freedman  May 3, 2016 at 3:10 pm Reply

      That is what I would have posted. I am doing a really horrible job living without her, my everything.

    • Dana  May 3, 2016 at 10:22 pm Reply

      Oh, so well put. Same for me.

    • Emily  May 4, 2016 at 10:23 pm Reply

      She was the one I’d go to with something really hard. This is so terribly hard and she is so needed.

    • Julie  May 6, 2016 at 10:26 am Reply

      I totally Claudia!! So well put. I’m a mess without my Mom. XO

  2. Elaine Ferguson  May 3, 2016 at 11:55 am Reply

    Eleanor, I cried through this post, just as I do a lot of your posts that talk about your mother. Some of my daughters, maybe all of them, at one time or another were given some of those mother-concern letters by me. I always had trouble with confrontation face to face, thus the letters. At the time I don’t remember them exactly liking or appreciating them. I am wondering if any of them reads this post if they will remember that and think, “Oh my, Aunt Evelyn did that too?” Anyway Eleanor, your posts bring your mother back to me. Thank you!

  3. Barbara Beizer  May 3, 2016 at 2:05 pm Reply

    Eleanor – lovely, poignant piece. I was 20 when my mother died. From her I learned how to laugh and travel and see life as an adventure. I learned manners and etiquette – how to make a bed, set a table, and arrange flowers.

    I did not learn how to listen, love, empathize, accept or forgive. I didn’t want to grow up because I didn’t understand grown-ups.

    After she died, I carried on conversations with her, playing both her part and mine. As we grew older together, and I married and had a child, she became loving, forgiving, accepting and a person I could turn to who would listen to my deepest fears and worst worries. I always believed this is what she would have given me had she lived. Earlier in her life, she could only be the harsh judger because that’s all she knew how to do. But, as we both grew up, we learned together how to be more human.

    As the joke goes, a successful parent is one whose children can pay for their own psychotherapy. I paid a lot for mine, and it was worth every penny to be able to hold my mother’s memory with empathy and respect for who she was and who she could have been, and for myself for who I am.

  4. fiona tuomey  May 3, 2016 at 3:38 pm Reply

    What a lovely post. My mother died just after my first child was born. I was totally bereft. My pregnancy with my second child, my daughter Milly, saved me from that grief. Milly died tragically in Jan this year aged just 11. My mother never thought me how to grieve the loss of a child. But she did always tell me that love never dies and that keeps me upright. My mother’s early death taught me grief and I would dearly love to have her here to hold my hand and wipe my tears .But, instead she is holding Milly’s hand. My love for them will never die and I hope to honour my mother and my motherly love for my darling Milly with ever breath I take and every good deed I do in their name.

    • evie  December 1, 2017 at 11:12 pm Reply

      Dear Fiona, I am sorry to read of your heartbreaking loss- of your mother and of your beautiful daughter. Your lovely comment reflects your love for them both. I imagine them both holding each others hand in Heaven as they look on in admiration of your work here in remembrance of them both. You are to be commended.

  5. Mary  May 3, 2016 at 4:47 pm Reply

    My Mother was the only one who I truly believed loved me unconditionally. I’m so fortunate to have had her as my Mom. I miss her to this day and it’s been 26 years

  6. Yam Kahol  May 3, 2016 at 5:14 pm Reply

    Eleanor thank you for this beautiful post!

  7. Dani  May 3, 2016 at 10:15 pm Reply

    I was 29 when my Mom died and there are so, so, so many things she never taught me. I find myself mostly wishing she had taught me her recipes and how she made french toast taste like home. She never taught me pack. She never told me that when she was gone I would spend the rest of my life trying to make a home feel like her’s did. And living without her means the loss of the truest unconditional love that we have to offer in life.

    • Robin F  May 5, 2016 at 9:32 pm Reply

      Yes! Oh that unconditional love.

  8. Deborah  May 5, 2016 at 10:02 am Reply

    I’m not sick or dying but I wish I could send this to my own daughter

  9. RLF  May 6, 2016 at 12:11 am Reply

    I really thought I was going to make it through the week ok but no. The sun has now gone circled the earth a second time on Mother’s Day since my mother died in an accident. And I am so angry, so sad, so lost. Yet all of you– mothers and daughters are saying such poignant things…thank you, we share in each others grief…I loved this beautiful post from another column…”When you’re fortunate enough to know what it’s like to have an affectionate and nurturing mother, you never stop craving her kind of love. She’s the only one who can make you feel it and once she’s gone, you search to fill her void until finally realizing you’re trying to solve a riddle with no answer.”

  10. coco  May 14, 2017 at 3:31 pm Reply

    My mother didn’t teach me the exact same list of things and then some (she didn’t teach me to respect others and myself, she didn’t attempt to help me while she literally saw me developing food related issues, didn’t teach me what marriage is about, and I could go on and on and on), yet she’s very much alive.

  11. Leena  December 28, 2017 at 1:15 am Reply

    My mother never taught me to sew or cook. When I asked to learn these things, the attitude was that I was under her feet, in the way, and being annoying. Simply put, I invaded her “space.” Whether it was the kitchen and/or the sewing room. Now I have a sewing machine that I plan to demolish and throw into the Dumpster. What’s the point now?

  12. Betti Merlin  February 26, 2018 at 6:55 pm Reply

    When I think of my mom and how tough it is to live without her, I try and remember that she too had to learn to live without her mom and she did it while being the best mom to me. So I take comfort in the fact that she did teach me how to live without the most important person in her life and tough as it is, I will do her proud and do the same.

  13. Elizabeth  May 12, 2018 at 3:20 am Reply

    My mother committed suicide when i was 43 and she was 65. I never had a relationship with her as she was to busy looking after my aloholic fathe65. There are no years that I dont think of my Mum fondly despite her shortcomings..her life was not easy. I have just driven past the florist and sighted many people picking out bunches of flowers from buckets..anf I burst into tears wanting so much to be doing that..buying flowers for my Mum. It is a blessing that I do have a few nice memories of my special Mum.

  14. Angel  May 22, 2018 at 4:31 pm Reply

    My mother was my number one supporter through so many of life’s ups and down. After a year of her being gone, I truly miss having someone listen to me with her brand of unconditional love. My mom didn’t try to teach me anything, BUT she did show me how to be independent, resilient, and confident as I continue in this world without her.

  15. Cathy  June 22, 2018 at 8:29 am Reply

    This paragraph nails it. “When my mother was alive, I had an indestructible connection to a never-ending source of comfort, security, forgiveness, guidance, and reassurance. When she died, these things seemed to die with her and I was cut loose in a world with no gravity. Adrift and directionless, I struggled to deal with the greatest tragedy of my charmed existence without the very person who, a year before, would have helped me get through it.” I have said some version of these points many times in the past 3.5 years (not as eloquently!).

    I have recently come to a place where gratitude is peeking in. The pain has numbed (most days, not all!) We were lucky to have moms that anchored us through everything. It is very unsettling and confusing to lose them, but we were so lucky and so blessed.

  16. Louisa  December 7, 2018 at 6:56 am Reply

    I hit on this post accidentally. I wish 🌠 I had asked Mum to show me how she cooked and sewed but largely felt it was her space to excel. I mean she was exceptionally good at these. Baked exceedingly good cakes and pastries. Made wedding 💒 dresses. How I wish I’d got a wedding dress. Now 10 months gone, dreading Christmas 🎅 and New Year without her. All your stories resonate with me.

  17. Emily  December 9, 2018 at 2:05 pm Reply

    My mother, who died this past March, did not teach me how to grieve or how to handle difficult emotions.
    She didn’t teach me to trust.
    I could go on, but it would take forever.
    Rest in peace, Mom.
    The grief is still hard and ugly, despite our strained relationship.E

  18. Gisela  May 12, 2019 at 11:39 am Reply

    My mother didn’t teach me how to miss her without
    feeling an incredible pain

  19. Anoynomous  May 20, 2019 at 4:42 am Reply

    My mother was a ghost employee for the majority of my life.
    And my father wasn’t a good teacher.

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