My mother died when she was 43 years old and I was only 17. She was overweight most of her life and struggled with dieting and exercise. She was a stay-at-home mom and did so much for my brother and me, but one of the single best lessons she left was to not feel guilty about taking time for herself–and how the only people who defined her as a “good parent” were her children.
Here are the five most important parenting and self-care lessons I learned from losing my mom at a young age.
Your Kids Want You To Spend Time Away From Them
My mom stayed home with my brother and me while we were growing up in the 1980s, attending a very small Catholic school from first grade though high school. My mom was pretty strict about us spending time away from our house. She always wanted us to invite friends to our house instead of venturing to theirs, we rarely had sleepovers and I can count on one hand the number of times we had a babysitter so my parents could have a night out alone.
I adored my mom, but we spent way too much time with her. It didn’t allow me the time and space I needed to figure out who I was without her around and become independent. Even after losing her to cancer when I was 17, I still wish she had made more time for herself when I was younger.
What you think: These are important, formative years for adolescents, and I need to be here for my kids and put strict rules in place!
What they think: Leave me alone! Go out to dinner, go to the gym, go anywhere and let me be independent and trustworthy.
You Don’t Have To Watch Every Moment Of Every Sport
I started doing gymnastics as a 4-year-old, and by time I was 8, I was competing at the state and national levels in my age group. Becoming that competitive required six days of practice in a gym for hours after school every day and on weekends.
Although my mom never missed a practice, she hardly ever watched. I have a very distinct memory of her sitting on a side bench with the other moms, feverishly cross-stitching for hours.
What you think: Is it okay for me to read or text or watch Netflix while my kid is running through another practice, or do I need to watch every moment in case I miss something amazing?
What they think: I’m just glad you’re here.
Be True To Yourself
I mentioned my mom’s struggle with weight, right? Picture this: it’s July of 1989 and my mom has offered to take me to the mall with some of my girlfriends–but she’s wearing a mustard-yellow tank top with a hand-painted chicken on it. She refused to take it off, and actually wore it often in the summer of ’89, no matter how many times (or perhaps because of how many times) I told her how embarrassing it was to me.
My mom also didn’t dye her hair when it turned mostly gray at the age of 32 (something she graciously passed onto me), drove a pickup truck and smoked Virginia Slim menthol lights.
What you think: Do I really need to do my hair and put on some makeup to pick up the kids from school? (The answer: Only if you want to!)
What they think: YES! Please, for the love of everything that is holy, put something decent on and look like you’re my mom and not my grandma.
Take Vacations Without Your Kids
My mom took one vacation in 19 years that didn’t include my brother and me. One. I remember it because it was the week of my 11th birthday and it was one of the best I ever had. Since my mom obviously knew she would miss my big day, she planned ahead. She sent me on a scavenger hunt for my gifts throughout our house, culminating in a book written by my hero, Mary Lou Retton; a book my mom had already read and highlighted passages she knew would resonate with me.
She also arranged for a cake, cupcakes and balloons to be sent for everyone in my class (back when you could have actual food in classrooms!) and called me at school at precisely the time everything was to arrive. I distinctly remember having to go to the principal’s office to take the call and feeling so special.
What you think: I can’t possibly take a vacation without my kids, especially if it falls on an important date!
What they think: It’s even more special–in my case, it made an important, unforgettable memory and we both had a great time.
Be Healthy Enough For You
My mom was overweight for most of her short life. She never met a dessert she didn’t like, and yes: she occasionally smoked cigarettes. She also went to aerobics classes, sweat buckets to the oldies in our living room and did side bends and sit-ups with a belted and svelte Jane Fonda on the VCR.
When she got serious about losing weight, she joined Weight Watchers, counted calories and dropped 100 pounds in a year. Although I remember her carrying around a small calorie-counting reference book, I don’t remember her obsessing about her weight or having negative body image issues. She just did the work and got the results. What I do remember is her showing off a “before” picture of herself to anyone who had interest. She was a walking social media account.
What you think: I HAVE to be thin. I HAVE to be healthy. I HAVE to go to the gym. I HAVE to eat clean.
What they think: You just have to be my mom.