All the things my mom taught me about building a family

My mom turns 58 years old today. In her 58 years, she’s been a lot of things aside from a mother: a daughter, a sister, a wife, a waitress, an accounts-payable clerk, and perhaps most notably, a caregiver – both in the literal and emotional sense. My mother has always made her orbit around the sun she calls family, and though sometimes that has taken every ounce of energy she has and every ounce she didn’t even know she had, I know deep down it has been worth every bit of hard work she has endured.

I know this, because I can see it in her face even when someone disappoints her. I can see, behind her relief of not having to deal with X, Y, and Z issues, that she’d almost rather deal with those things if it means contributing something of value to her family’s individual and collective worth. Over the years, I’ve struggled with how to apply her philosophies to my own life and get the kind of end-of-the-day satisfaction I know she values so deeply. But as I’m getting closer to building my own family, I’m seeing more and more clearly there are quite a few big things she has taught me that I plan to carry forward.

Blood comes first, (almost) always

Something my mom always tells me when I’m angry at someone related to us is, “But (s)he’s your brother/aunt/uncle/cousin,” whatever. And the older I get, the more I realize that doesn’t mean you should let everything slide just because you have a genetic bond. I think she means that it’s important to cherish the people we were given by default, because they’re usually the ones who will be there for each other in a time of crisis even if they generally make bad decisions. Life is too short to cut ties with your kin, and while that doesn’t mean you should let anyone take advantage of you, it’s important to be a little less rigid with them out of the gate than you might be for an acquaintance or even close friend.

A few close, trustworthy confidants is more rewarding than a huge web of acquaintances

This is something I realize as I get older and recognize which people are in my life because of convenience and which are there because they truly love, respect, and appreciate me as an individual. I have learned a lot of hard lessons in trust – mostly that, as I age and am starting to really accept who I am instead of discovering it, trust is getting a lot more difficult. And while my mom isn’t the most generally trusting person I know, she is the most trustworthy. Through this, I have learned that if you need a litmus test to determine who is worth keeping around, the ones you can put your trust in are it.

Don’t wait for everyone else to make the effort

“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” This is something my mom has never said to me directly with her words, as far as I can remember, but she has shown it many times through her actions. And not in the sense that she doesn’t allow anyone to step up – she has just always led by example, which is the main reason I’m lucky enough to share so many of her good qualities. The lesson I got from this was to take initiative in building relationships and experiences, because it will often guide others to do the same, as well as generally make you a happier person as a result.

But also, don’t be the only one making the effort

My mom has learned this one as she, herself, has gotten older. I secretly think she has a bit of a George Bailey complex, as I like to call it: She has tried so hard that it’s impossible for others to meet the level at which she has given, including me. I’m a lot more selfish than my mother, because I see the hard work she has put into making other people happy mean sometimes she has little energy left for herself. She’s slowly getting better at prioritizing herself, but seeing her struggle with it reminds me that other people need to put in work, too. And there’s no shame in expecting them to do that. You’re only one person.

Remember and acknowledge birthdays

Maybe it’s because she’s the oldest of five children or because her birthday is three days before Christmas (or both), but my mom has always, ironically, made sure the people around her are called out individually for their birthdays. She never forgets a birthday card (and never sends it late) and a phone call to the people around her whose birthday it is, and always makes sure they have cake. Lately, she has even come around to accepting a cupcake as a form of cake, as long as it has at least one candle in it and a song is involved. This has taught me that family is more than a unit – that birthdays are an opportunity to recognize each family member as an individual, important part of what makes that family so great.

Tradition and structure are crucial

No matter what kind of drama was going on in our outside of our household, my mom always made sure my brother and I had a routine, especially during school weeks. We had a hot breakfast almost every morning (chocolate-chip pancakes on Fridays, and also sometimes other days if I whined enough), were in bed at a specific time every night, etc. For every holiday – even smaller ones like Valentine’s Day – we got a card, a gift, some kind of special breakfast and/or dinner, and a treat in our lunchboxes. One of my favorites was Easter, because it always meant a huge basket of candy and, without fail, a Disney VHS.

These actions took a lot more work than my mother made them seem; they were foundational pillars I grew to rely on, whose importance I didn’t realize at the time. Looking back, I’m so grateful for them, because they provided stability and warmth even when my mom – who endured a lot, both personally and professionally, to take care of my brother, my dad, and me – probably felt nowhere near stable.

Really appreciate your parents while they’re here

My mom doesn’t talk all that much about herself, but when she does, it’s always less about her personally and more about how the people around her influenced her when she was growing up – particularly her parents and grandparents. She emphasizes that while her parents weren’t anywhere near perfect, they did the best they could. I can see how my grandfather’s generosity to the people in his community and my grandmother’s commitment to keeping her children safe and happy resonate within my mother. And that makes me really want to cherish the time I have with my own parents, because one day they’ll just be photos, stories, and memories. Great ones, granted, but the real thing is better – and I want to make sure I pass on to my own children that appreciating the people in your life while they’re here is so crucial. Especially because you never know when they could be gone.

Happy birthday, Mom, and thanks for teaching me all the most important ingredients to building a familial foundation. And even though I can’t be there to give you a cake in person (spice cake, obviously), please make sure your son buys you one even if he doesn’t bake it himself.

(Image courtesy of Jen Juneau / Sam Gomez Photography)

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