Mad Men fans were reeling last night, some from shock and upset over Betty’s advanced lung cancer diagnosis, some with delighted glee that the ultimate cold fish mother was finally getting her due.
Still, what stood out for me in this episode was the letter Betty handed to Sally. I’m not sure what I expected—a few words of warmth aimed toward her daughter to help melt the thick veneer between them, maybe? But upon reflection, her emotionless instructions for burial, right down to which glam dress to pull from her closet and how to do her makeup, make sense. Betty is a woman of her times. If she’s going down, she’ll do it looking good, damnit.
The letter reminded me of my own missive, one I wrote a few years back for my two daughters. Unlike Betty, I have a close and loving relationship with my kids, and I adore being a mom. And in our case, it’s my husband who is a cancer survivor. I’ve spent countless nights worrying about what could happen to him, of course. But as a mother married to someone who once battled a serious illness, a final, unassailable thought lingers: This means that absolutely nothing can ever happen to me.
So I wrote a letter with clear instructions, just in case. Here are a few things I told my girls in it:
1. Learn how to drive a stick-shift in an automatic world.
Life is a highway, or so the song goes. People who are passive, who allow life to drive them, shouldn’t be surprised with an automatic outcome. Take control of your gears, girls, and accelerate or down-shift with every bit of open road and unexpected curve. Steer accordingly. Don’t sit back, thinking things will be easier if you don’t have to work so hard. Sure, you’ll slog through first and second; both are slow-going and never fun. But when you get the chance to kick it up to fifth or even sixth, you’ll know you’ve earned it, and you’ll enjoy driving all the more. In addition, there’s nothing cooler than a woman who can handle full-throttle with absolute confidence.
2. Identify toxic people. Then run, don’t walk.
Drama queens, mean girls, crises addicts, passive-aggressive pals, narcissists and friends who only ever call you when they need phone therapy are takers. It’s great to be a giver, but there’s no need to give and give and give and give. Recognize those who would suck you dry. Then give them the boot without pause. For that matter, you don’t need to forgive and forgive and forgive, either. Pardon a toxic person for his transgressions against you once. Give him a second chance. If he does it again, it’s who he is. Don’t feel bad about cutting him off.
3. Marry someone like your Daddy.
I chose him because he’s smart and funny. Loyal and hardworking. Responsible and driven, and an amazing father, too. The fact that he’s good-looking as all, get out? That’s a nice bonus, and I guess I got lucky, but it’s not the most important trait in a partner. I kissed a few toads before I found him. I didn’t settle—I didn’t want to. I don’t want you to settle either.
4. Stare at the physical trait you most hate about yourself until you learn to love it. For my sister, it was her splattering of freckles. Never mind they announced her Celtic heritage to the world and are perfectly harmonious with her gorgeous, golden-orange hair. She hated them for so many years—well into adulthood—that she refused to wear short-sleeve shirts or bare her legs, even in July. She felt ashamed of these markings that were uniquely her. One day when she was in her twenties, I asked her, “Who are you living your life for? Why are you willing to be uncomfortable on a hot summer day for some stranger who doesn’t appreciate your freckles?” Something clicked. She got it. She’s a beautiful woman and thankfully now she knows it. I want the same for you, dear daughters. Love your differences, really love them, and you will thrive.
5. You are not that special. (Even if you are special to me.) There are millions of talented people in the world. Billions! Everyone is an artist or achiever in her own right. Don’t run out of the gate thinking you’ve got something coming to you just because you’ve got a gift, whether it’s a pretty voice, or a way with words, or a goal-driven path on the soccer pitch. Expect to work your talents, hone them. Expect to fail. Expect to miss the mark, just barely, and have your heart broken because of it. Expect someone will always be better. Use that person to inspire you to do more—but only if you really want to chase the dream. If you don’t, know you are OK just as you are, that you don’t have to be a superstar in any field to be considered worthy. Because you’re special to me. And you’re inherently precious, without having to prove it. And that will never change.
6. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Laugh at everything and everyone. Finally, life is a lark if you allow it to be. Laugh at the fart jokes, the potty humor and the person who accidentally burps. Laugh when you trip on the stairs! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and grin, and then ask others to laugh with you. There’s no shame in being human. The ride is short, my darling daughters, too short not to enjoy it. Please, giggle and guffaw through every thrilling twist and turn. And know that I’m smiling with you. Always.