Most first-time moms are blessed with instant access to advice and tips on motherhood from their own moms. I was not one of them, having lost mine as a mere child. I have six siblings, three of whom are older sisters, but because I happened to be the first to venture down the parenting path, I did not have the advantage of learning from them either. And so, 24 years ago, I faced my first pregnancy armed with great joy, a little trepidation, and no other choice but to jump right into motherhood and just wing it. Train by experience. Make the mistakes and learn the lessons.
And oh, what an incredible education motherhood has given me, one that has enriched me and enlarged my heart (and, unfortunately, my body too). It’s an ongoing education without a graduation date – after all, we never cease being mothers no matter how old our children grow – although there are certain lessons we manage to master with great proficiency. Here are twelve of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Some things are important enough to wage wars on (for me, that’s any time my children are put in situations where they risk being hurt or harmed, physically, emotionally or spiritually). But most things are simple skirmishes that can be ignored. I’ve learned that if we want to keep our heartbeat normal and our minds sane, we need to pick our battles. So your son insists on wearing the striped shirt with the printed shorts in clashing colors? Let him, even if it offends your sense of fashion. He’ll catch on to it when he turns into a teen, believe me. But if he steps out of school after class to go malling with friends without first asking permission, that’s grounds for, well, grounding. Kids need to know what’s okay and what’s not, and they’ll take their cues from what you make a huge fuss about and what you let slip. It’s easier to do that when not every little thing is a big deal. Bonus: It means less wrinkles for you as well.
2. Don’t underestimate the small things either
Some small things don’t matter. And some small things matter a great deal. Like beginning and ending meals with grace. Like biting your tongue and swallowing that curse word when you stub your pinky on a chair leg, because little ears are listening and little eyes are watching. Like ensuring that the Rosary is prayed and Sunday Mass attended together as a family. Like dressing and dining and speaking with refinement. These small things are so ordinary and normal that we don’t really take notice of them. But our kids do. It’s the small things done day in and day out that turn into habits, and it’s up to us to make sure our kids end up with the good ones.
3. There will be moments when words will fail
The first time you hold your pink, wrinkly, freshly-birthed baby in your arms and think he’s the most beautiful miracle you’ve ever laid eyes on. The first time your toddler gazes at you like you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. The bittersweet moment when you watch your son transfer that look of adoration to another woman as he slips his ring onto her finger and gives her his name. Times like these you won’t have any words for, and that’s okay, because monumental moments do have a habit of leaving us speechless, and all that’s left for us to do is savor them as we tuck each one, protected and nurtured, in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
4. There will be moments when you will fail
On the other hand, there will be times when you wish you had actually lost the power of speech, right after you utter harsh words you wish you hadn’t. You will fly into a rage over some transgression or another and regret it immediately. You will forget to fill his wallet with his daily allowance one day, or rush in to pick him up when all his other classmates have gone home. Don’t beat yourself up when it happens. We’re human, after all, not mamabots; some days we win, some days we could do better. We learn that it’s really the struggle that matters.
5. Some rules can be bent; others cannot
You’ll develop a feel for what you’ll allow to pass you by and what you just won’t. Your kid fails to do her chores because she zonked off after a hard day at school? Let’s allow that to go for today. Lying, disobedience, disrespect, unkindness? Not okay at any point in time. Kids need to know which fences can be nudged from time to time and which are permanently set in the ground. It prepares them for the real world when they will need to discern which things to let go of and which things they need to hold on to, as they learn how to manage the shifting tides of life.
6. The Rule of Two should precede all else
Motherhood changes us; fatherhood changes our first loves, too. After all, it’s a partnership (and the reason why I think the whole business of becoming a parent requires two to tango). I’ve learned that kids need to see mom and pop as a united front. When my boys ask for permission, their pop will always say, “Ask your mom.” When they come to me, they also know for any decision I make, “Pop has veto power.” There will be inevitable moments when the hubby and I will be at odds with each other, but by unspoken agreement and shared principles, we will never put down the other in front of the kids. For us, that is the biggest no-no. The biggest yes-yes: Showing our affection for each other in front of the kids. Knowing that their parents see each other as the best thing in each other’s lives is as basic to the children’s wellbeing as food, clothing, and shelter: It gives them security, reassurance, and something to pattern their future relationships on.
7. You have a right to solitude
Some days you’re going to be totally wiped out. Exhausted. Drained. Sometimes you’ll rummage through the laundry, trying to find the self you seem to have lost after you took the name “Mama.” Other times you’ll just have an all-encompassing need to hog the bathroom to yourself, uninterrupted. Take that time to be alone and cherish it without guilt. It’s called a sanity break and you deserve those few minutes to regroup, regather, and spend a few moments breathing, relaxing, praying.
8. You also need your own Mommy Posse
Motherhood is a club with a built-in support group and we should all take advantage of its perks. Who else will understand your terror over all the possible implications of your kid’s three-day bout with high fever? Who else will commiserate with you when you weep over the first time your rebellious teenager answered back? Who else will sit with you, twiddling her thumbs in unison with yours, as you wait for your son to drive back home in one piece after a night out with friends? See what I mean? Mommy-buddies are precious lifelines.
9. It’s your job to document family life
Whether with your pen in a journal or a finger on the shutter of your camera, you’ll want to record both the everyday moments and precious milestones of your family for posterity’s sake. I realized how important it was to have family albums because they, and the memories they contained, helped me a lot as I waded through the tough years after my mom passed away. And today, when I see my children going through our own family albums and scrapbooks, I see how their memories are bolstered and their happiness fostered by tangible proof of the precious times we’ve spent together as family.
10. Your job can be tiring, but immensely rewarding
Fresh laundry. Healthy food. Stocked pantries. Comfy home. These are all things we see to, every day. And it’s not always easy to balance our multiple roles as doctor, driver, accountant, cleaning lady, laundress, psychologist, etcetera. It’s a job we perform silently, often unnoticed and seemingly unrewarded. Until we see our husband relieved and ecstatic to be home; until our kids choose to bring their friends home instead of hanging out elsewhere. Then we realize that there’s no greater reward than a happy family in a happy home. And we gain a deeper understanding of how the little sacrifices we make actually add up to immeasurable joy. And we know: It’s all worth it.
11. Your heart has magical healing power
I don’t think there’s any mom who can steer clear of heartbreaking moments. The time your child scrawls in his five-year-old hand: “Goodnight, everybody… except Mama” because you wouldn’t allow him to snack on candies before bedtime. Or the time your tween glares at you and whispers under his breath, “I don’t love you.” Or the time your teenager leans on your shoulder and chokes out in anguish, “She doesn’t love me.” These are the times you look down and see your heart splattered on the floor in a million tiny pieces, reflected in salt water drops threatening to escape from your eyes. Take heart, literally. Because even if it seems impossible at the moment, tomorrow you know your heart will be patched up, healed and whole, simply because mothers’ hearts have that magical ability. And you will not only love again, but love even more, enough to bravely survive other heartbreaking moments. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, they say… and mothers are virtually unbreakable. Thank God, we’re blessed that way.
12. You’re the best mom… second only to One
As we go through our lives as moms, we’ll find that, like the best of wine, we get better with age. Our bones may creak and it may take us longer to run from here to there, but that’s a small price to pay for wisdom gained and love multiplied beyond breaking point. We’ll fail from time to time, because we’re not perfect. And that’s okay. We’re a work in progress, after all. And no matter how we choose to raise our children, whether others agree with our methods or not, whether we think we’re awesome moms today or not, one thing is for sure. God gave you to your kids and me to mine, and He doesn’t make mistakes. There is no better mom for your kids than you… except for one, the Blessed Mother of All. And with recourse to her, there is no mommy hurdle we can’t fly over, no motherly pain we can’t get over, and no motherly triumph we can’t reach for, with hands both cradling our children and raised in gratitude and love to Him who entrusted them to our care.
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