My Mom Taught Me How To Be A Survivor

by Melissa L. Fenton
Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

I have a confession to make.

You might gasp at it and wonder, What kind of young adult could ever act like that? Or maybe you’ll nod your head and sheepishly think, I was the same exact way.

So…deep breath…here goes: As a teenager, I kinda hated my mother. As in, there was nothing that woman could say or do that would make me want to agree with her; be in her corner; listen to her advice; or in any way, shape, or form want to have much of anything to do with her.

I know, it’s sad and shameful, and I regret it more than words could ever describe, but I just didn’t know any better back then. Like most teens, I had absolutely zero appreciation for my mother. And honestly, how could I? The teen brain isn’t developed enough to understand what a four-way stop means, so how the hell could mine grasp the magnitude of all the things my mother did for me and put up with during those tumultuous teen years? My brain just didn’t get it.

Until I became a mother.

Like most first-time moms, I endured those initial few weeks of motherhood that were basically a shitshow tsunami of sleepless nights, a forever-wailing baby, and endless hours asking myself, “What am I doing? Why won’t he stop crying? Is this normal?”

As luck would have it, the only one with all the smart, correct, and supportive answers I needed happened to be staying in my home with me at the time — my own mother. I had left for the hospital a confident, independent, educated, ready-for-anything woman prepared to give birth, but returned home lost, anxious, weary, and desperate for any crumb of sanity, support, and help I could get. The one person on the planet to give all of that, and more, to me was the same one I loathed just a decade earlier — my mother.

It’s an odd thing to instantly be thrust into a new kind of relationship with your own mother, especially when it’s based solely on the fact you just had a baby. Immediately, you become part of the motherhood sorority, one where your own mom has enjoyed membership for years and years, and though you are the newest member on the block, it’s a club in which the amount of things that go unspoken (yet 100% fully understood) are infinite. Suddenly, you just get it. You get all of it! But the most important thing you instantly get is your mother.

Just like that, all those years of arguments fueled by your confident assumption that she knew nothing and you knew everything dissolved quicker than your patience during a 2 a.m. feeding. None of it mattered anymore, none of it, and the realization that she had been right all along, while you were likely just an immature brat at the time, meant you had come to look at her in an entirely different light.

Of course, in those early years of parenting, you spend a lot of time thinking about all the unrecognized and unappreciated things your mother did for you — clean clothes, meals, carpools, doctor’s appointments, homework help — and all the daily mothering minutia that you’re now doing.

The middle years of raising children — the tweens and the early teen years — bring even more appreciation and gratitude for all the crap she dealt with. It’s the same crap you’re dealing with now, and you then see her in an even different light: one where she wasn’t just your mother, she was a mother just like you now.

Now that I’m mothering through young adult years, those years when children start moving away to college and beyond, the past struggles of childrearing combine with the big picture of baby birds leaving the nest, I see what and who my mother was with more clarity than ever before. She wasn’t just a woman, wife, and mother, she was a survivor in every sense of the word. She not only did all the parenting crap I did and am now doing, she survived it. Motherhood didn’t actually break her, and it won’t break me either (even if it sometimes feels like it might). I know I can survive, simply because my mother did.

It’s odd, but seeing her in that survivor role now sheds a whole different light on her and the relationship we share. Though there are many differences and disagreements we still have, the bottom line is she successfully survived and finished a race I am still very much running. For that reason, I not only love the fact she is my cheerleader and the sherpa who carries my emotional load in this race, I love that I know she is 100% confident that I will survive this motherhood race as well. Bottom line: She is (and was) a badass.

There are many things we can learn from survivors — faith, grace, humility, perspective, fortitude, and that never-quit spirit — even when we think we can’t go on anymore. I’ve learned all those things and more from the survivor in my life: my own mother. On days when I truly think I am done and want to check out of life, when I think this is all too hard and how can I raise these young people into being good humans without it actually killing me in the process, I call my survivor — my mom. “You’re gonna finish this race,” she tells me and goes on with “If I did it, so can you, because you are 100% stronger than I ever was.”

And just like that, I feel like I can survive it. Thanks, Mom. Thanks for being my liferaft in this sea of uncertainty and making sure I survive.