My mum is one of those seriously amazing women who holds the world together. You know the type – they may not be famous, and they may not be loud. They may not be the centre of attention at all, but if you spend a lot of time in their presence, then you know just how integral they are to the good things that happen around you.

Over the years, my mum has taught me a lot of things. She often did so on the fly – I’m the eldest of four, so there were always between four and fourteen of us kids getting into scrapes and escapades “somewhere around here.” We lived cross-culturally, moved around a ton and were a pretty noisy family whose numbers were often expanded by those we hosted, so it wasn’t over tea and biscuits in quiet, carefully-crafted moments that I picked up wisdom. Nonetheless, I learned a ton from Mum, just from hearing her reflections on everyday life as and when it happened.

I’ve been reflecting recently on those lessons. Some of them are really simple things and I find it hard to even remember what they are until I find I’m using them. Then conversations like this happen:

Friend: But how did you know what to do in that situation?!

Me: Um….my Mum taught me.

Friend: Huh. Can your Mum come and teach all of us how to do life?

It’s amazing how valuable the things you take for granted can be. In the spirit of making visible the many invisible contributions our parents and caregivers make to us, here are five of the many lessons I learned from my Mum.

Lesson 1: You Are a Citizen

You know that thing where you see something that is wrong, and it’s not really your problem, but then it’s not really any specific other person’s problem either? Do you think for about 10 seconds that “someone should do something about that…” and then walk on by?

Not if you’re my mother, you don’t.

If you’re my Mum, you go home, do some internet research to find out who has the power to change that thing, and then write them a letter.

Mum never told us to take civic responsibility. I just watched her do it herself, even when it was inconvenient (which it pretty much always is). If she had an idea, she told someone who had the power to do something about it. If she disagreed with a decision, she wrote to her MP. If she saw someone in distress, she pulled over. If she noticed broken public property, she found the form to report it. If the form was impossible to find, she wrote a politely worded letter suggesting a more efficient method for reporting broken public property.  If we laughed affectionately at her, she explained why it was important and wrote the letter anyway.

I watched, and I learned that I too am a citizen.

Lesson 2: Vote

Obviously related to lesson 1, I actually learned this from both my parents who modelled voting as normal and talked about politics round the dinner table. To this day, I celebrate election days and continue to cast my vote no matter how little difference I feel it will make. It’s a right I resist becoming cynical about.

Lesson 3: Critical Thinking 101 (AKA This is How Advertising Works)

You know how I said that my Mum taught us a lot by commentating on everyday life? During the few years when we had a television, she also commentated throughout the adverts of anything we watched as a family. This was sometimes hilarious because she’s got a quick, dry sense of humour. Other times, it was crazy annoying and had us all rolling our eyes and using our best exasperated whining voices to extend the word “Mum” into as many syllables as possible.

As this was 20+ years ago, the adverts weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. This is the type of commentary we could count on enjoying as our “commercial break.”

“You should start smoking, because look – if you do, you’ll be crazy strong and have good friends who talk to you while you’re naked and it’s also possible that you won’t ever need to shower again!”

“We should get that car. Look how good it will make our marriage.”

“Wait, what? Drama-free holidays for anyone who buys mini chocolate bars? Why did no one tell me?”

Thanks, Mum, for the Critical Thinking 101 class in every commercial break of my childhood.

Lesson 4: If It’s Not Your Story, Don’t Tell It

This lesson feels more important now than ever, with the ever-growing presence of social media over-sharing in our everyday lives. It’s a simple lesson, but sometimes incredibly hard to live by. There’s something tantalisingly satisfying about making it clear that you’re in the know by being the one to share other people’s news.

But don’t.

Don’t, because it’s not your story to tell. Don’t, because you’re robbing that person of being the one to share their own news in their own way, on their own terms. Don’t, because you will hurt the people who would otherwise have heard the story in more appropriate ways. Don’t, because what it amounts to is using someone else’s life to gain popularity/power/a balm for insecurity. Don’t, because there is something far more important than being in the know and that is being trustworthy.

This doesn’t just apply to gossip about other people. It applies to all the stories of employment and unemployment, engagement and marriage, death and disease, pregnancy and birth, promotion and achievement, love and loss.

Obviously, once people have clearly made a piece of news public, it’s fine to tell other people who are not in touch with them about it, but if in doubt, hold back.

And yes, writing “Congratulations!” on someone’s Facebook wall before they have announced their news definitely counts as telling their story.

Lesson 5: If You’re Struggling, You’re Not the Only One

Being cross-cultural missionaries, my parents sometimes found themselves in situations where everyone was putting on a brave and admirable face. Everyone was “fine.” Everyone was “coping.” And obviously everyone was super spiritual – it’s in the job description, right?

Well, after a while my Mum decided that the farce wasn’t really working for her. She started letting on when she was, in fact, not fine, not coping, and not feeling particularly spiritually about it either. She decided, in other words, to be honest.

Lifting the veil allowed her to put in place the strategies she needed to make our family life sustainable for her. It also broke the taboo for other people, making my Mum a safe place to confide in and giving her the experience and resources she needed to mentor and teach others how to put in place guilt-free practical solutions for making everyday life realistic. I had a pretty cool conversation with one of my parents’ colleagues a few years ago. She gave me advice on coping with cross-cultural living as I was about to head out overseas then added that the judgement-free advice and support my Mum had given her years ago had been a game-changer for her.

Through all of these experiences, which played out over years, my Mum taught me that if you’re struggling, you’re probably not the only one, and if you’re brave enough to be honest about that, you’ll not only get the help you need, but you’ll also probably make that help available to the countless other people who need it.

That’s no small thing.

Let this hearten those of you who are parents or caregivers and feel that you never have time to teach anything to your kids because everything is always so crazy! If you’re opening your mouth and sharing your values, even if it’s the midst of a drama, your kids are probably learning. Your reflections on life as it happens are equipping them. Your wise choices in the midst of the carnage are teaching them. They are watching and listening, and your nuggets of wisdom will be their guiding stars – or maybe just future blog posts, but hey, that works, right?

What lessons did you learn in your childhood? Do you still abide by them today?


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Due credit: my Mum, of course

Featured Image by Death to the Stock Photo