Life Coach Tal Fagin begins this column on motherhood by remembering her own mother—and offers invaluable lessons from all the magnificent mothers she has known.
Happy May, Dear Readers.
For just about two years now, I have had the privilege of writing this column and sharing much of what I have learned through coaching with all of you. This month, in honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to share a different sort of wisdom.
When it comes to moms, mine was one of the best there ever was. Leah Fagin was, and continues to be, my example and my inspiration. Almost everything I know that has been truly useful to me in life, I owe to her. Seventeen years after losing her, she feels incredibly present and alive in me, still. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear her voice, sense her presence or feel her influence. I have also been blessed to know one smart, funny, reliable, caring and all-around-AMAZING woman after another. All of them manage to strike that perfect balance of effort and grace, devotion and resourcefulness, compassion and humor.
As a tribute to my own beautiful mother, and all the magnificent mothers I know, I’d like to share just a few of the lessons and words of wisdom they have shared with me with all of you. Some of it may seem specific to parenting, but I assure, each lesson has a broader reach. I hope you find them as invaluable as I do.
Start with unconditional love. Above all else, this defined my experience of my mother. Her love was unquestionable, not a thing I ever thought to doubt, not a thing that could ever change. The felt sense of her love—anticipating the reassuring warmth of it as I lie waiting for her in my crib—is my earliest memory. Later, through the more difficult teen-age years, she remained steadfast. No matter what I said or did or how ugly things got, I knew I never risked damaging that love. It was a constant, a fact of my existence, as immutable and defining as the DNA she had passed along.
What do you give another person—whether your child or spouse or anyone else—when you love them unconditionally?
For me, it was like a super-power. It was intangible and hard to comprehend, yet ever-present and incredibly empowering. It enabled both security and confidence. It allowed me to take on any challenge, to separate my worth from my accomplishments and to live as freely and fully as I could imagine.
Layer on unwavering support, no judgment required. Fear of judgment makes us small. It limits our capacity to take chances, and otherwise dims our light. I was lucky enough to get the opposite. If my mother’s capacity to love unconditionally was my super-power, her unwavering support was its trusty sidekick. She might get angry or disappointed, she might disapprove of my attitude or disagree with my choices—and she never hesitated to let me know it—but she would still always be on my side.
There was simply no way get her off my team.
It wasn’t that I could do no wrong in her eyes. I could, and I did. Often. Each occasion might easily have led to screaming or shaming, but they never did. In this way, she taught me the value of honest, direct communication, that even the most difficult conversations can be had in a secure, trusting relationship. She always expressed her point of view without demeaning me, and aimed to correct the behavior by focusing on why it was wrong and how I could make up for it. She didn’t gloss over or condone the things I did, she just made sure to separate them from who I was as a person, and how she felt about me. As for me, I always knew I could go to her—confess my sins, relieve my guilt and talk about how to make amends—without losing her love or approval in the process.
Foster Independence, and Model It, Too. My mother’s parenting style proved that love and support have nothing to do with coddling, over-protecting or micro-managing. I was a true ‘80s child, as free-range as they get. I was always off tearing through the streets on my pink banana seat huffy, hiding and seeking in neighbors’ yards or swinging from the branches of very tall trees. During all of this, my mother was usually at work, styling other women’s hair at the beauty salon that still bears her name. Sundays we spent more time together, though she also always made time for painting or gardening or something else she loved.
She fostered my independence, while at the same time, modeling her own.
I might have preferred shooting hoops or digging for worms, while she enjoyed more creative, artistic endeavors. Still, we could not have been closer. It wasn’t physical proximity that bonded us, it wasn’t her hovering over me or even common interests that defined our relationship. It was all of that love and support she offered, combined with the freedom and trust she afforded me to be my own person. She was devoted and generous and always made me feel I came first. At the same time, she modeled self-love and self-care, in a way that commanded respect. She wasn’t just “my mother,” there to satisfy my needs without regard to her own. She was a woman in the world—a business owner, a friend, a sister, a daughter, an artist—someone with her own needs, passions and interests, someone I admired and aim to emulate to this day.
Never Say “I Told You So.” Sometimes, a big part of relating to others—whether as parent, spouse, friend, sibling or colleague—is being the bigger person. Motherhood is excellent training for this, as it constantly forces us to check our egos at the door. It is hard enough for our children (or anyone else) to admit they need us or come to us with their concerns. Coming off as Mr. or Mrs. Always Right won’t help, and it might just render you unapproachable. Instead, aim to be a soft, safe place to land. Making others feel good in your presence will trump that feeling of superiority every time.
Similarly, when it comes to those you love going off into the world, let them know you are there in times of trouble—no questions asked or punishments risked. Their boyfriend is passed out drunk in a field and they don’t know what to do? They find themselves at a party where everyone is on drugs? Let them know they should just call. Again, you want them to feel secure in reaching out, rather than risking their safety to avoid your wrath.
Don’t Go Wishing It All Away. If losing my mother taught me anything, it was to savor life and the people I love as thoroughly as I can. All the wise mamas I spoke to this week advised the same. Whatever stage you are at in life, try to slow down and truly live it. Embrace the moment you are in, rather than rushing through it or otherwise racing toward what’s next.
This advice applies to everyone, of course, but I’d like to make a special plea to all the new (and newish) moms among you. Whether you are home with young children, or balancing it all while still working, try not to wish the time away.
You may feel overwhelmed, or even burdened. It may feel like you can’t wait until they sleep or walk or go to school or drive—like you simply can’t wait to get your life back—but you can. As one veteran mom of four stellar young adults told me, “They will get there soon enough, and you will find yourself longing for it all.”
I know slowing down can be terrifying. That’s OK. I know stepping aside or saying no to other opportunities can feel like the worse kind of failure. It’s not. Your identity as “mommy” may feel like it has eclipsed everything else about you. It hasn’t. You are still you, and this experience will only make you a better version of yourself.
Your life is not on hold. It never is. This is your life. Enjoy it.
Be patient. Be present. Try to realize the beauty and wonder and love in your life as you live it.