I am a very lucky woman. My mother is a freaking saint, filled with the patience, love, and support that is almost mythical in it’s awesomeness. I could go on for days about how I have the best mommy in the whole wide world, but that is for a different article. The people I am referring to here are the other people who raise us, the ones who come into our lives early or later on that shape our thinking and lives in ways that are different from our actual parents.
The idea for this article came from random thoughts I was having while walking the dog the other morning. I moved in with a family when I was 18 to be a full-time, live-in nanny. While most people at 18 have a basic grasp of many household tasks, I did not. My mom worked full-time and it was often easier for her to do things herself than to nag us to take on some responsibility. I had chores, of course, but I had no idea how to do laundry, cook, or be mindful of the myriad tasks that are required for basic daily household upkeep. All of the sudden, I started a position that was as much household management as it was childcare and I was in way, WAY over my head. I know my lack of skills was frustrating to the mom, let’s call her Jen, but she was as patient with me as she could possibly be expected to be and walked me through some basic skills I was sorely lacking. I learned it was important to separate whites and colors when washing clothes. Who knew? I learned how to cook basic meals and how to suppress my gag reflex when handling raw chicken (though now that I have nobody else’s nutritional intake as a responsibility, raw chicken can go fuck itself. Won’t touch the stuff). I learned how to notice all the little mundane pieces of the puzzle that adults have to recognize and deal with every single day.
But the lessons she taught me were much larger in scope, as well. She is an excellent mom, both loving and supportive and yet incredibly mindful of developing a child’s independence. She taught me child rearing skills that I have incorporated into my interactions with every child in my life since, skills that I have found infinitely useful. It was from her I learned the importance of setting boundaries with kids, making my expectations clear so that they knew what was expected from both of us. She stressed that kids thrive when they know where they stand, and this has served me incredibly well over the years. She taught me to never make idle threats, and never to throw out a punishment I wasn’t prepared to follow through on. She taught me how to foster the boy’s curiosity and my own, to constantly seek out new things, new ideas, and to never be satisfied with “I don’t know.”
It wasn’t just child rearing, though. When you live with a family, you become part of the family. You are there for everything, from the overwhelming joy of the birth of their second child to the embarrassing-for-everyone middle of the night marital screaming matches. I learned how to navigate when to get involved and when to get the hell out of the way. I learned that sometimes, the person you love the most in the world will hurt you in ways you never thought possible and swore you would never abide, and yet, abide it you do. I learned that marriage is a series of compromises, that sometimes you will forgive someone for something unforgivable because the alternative is worse. From her I learned how to choose my battles, how to let the little things go, how to make the good of the family more important than my petty squabble or my precious pride. From her I learned to always trust my gut. I learned that even your closest friends sometimes have ulterior motives and you should never ignore your intuition when it tells you something isn’t quite right. I learned that no amount of money can make you happy, that the size of one’s bank account does not protect you from life’s disappointments.
And from her I learned how to have my first grown-up friendship. A friendship that was built on the most supreme trust you can have in another person, the trust of your child’s life. I was closer to her than I had been to anyone in my life outside of my family. We spent every single day together for years. We went through the moves together, we traveled extensively together, she supported me through one of the most heart wrenching break-ups of my life. We were a team, and she would often refer to me as her “wife,” and tell others that all women deserved a wife like me. And when it comes down to it, she took over for me where my mom left off, and now I tell all of you that everyone deserves a “second mom” like Jen. Someone who, like family, will accept your faults, delusions, and mistakes and help you turn into the person you are on the path to become.
I think we find these people all throughout our life, and part of the challenge is recognizing the lessons and applying them. As we get older, we are less willing to be molded, to be guided, to recognize that there are still things we need to learn. On top of that though, and part of the reason I put this out into the Internets, is to let her know what she meant to me, what she means to me to this day. Though it has been a decade since we lived together, the lessons she imparted on me are evident in my daily life even now. Even though we don’t get to see each other often, I want her to know what a profound effect she had on me. I think we all have an impact on others all the time, and mostly we never know it. One of the things I want to work on this year is letting the people who have shaped me as a person know that they did so, and how. And to thank them, truly thank them, for what I learned.
Are there people in your life you feel this way about? A teacher, a roommate, a boss? Have you ever let them know? Do you feel like they helped raise you, or do you see it as something different?