What Our Mothers Teach Us

In her poem “Shrinking Women,” Lily Myers confesses that she has unknowingly accepted what society has taught her: to keep her mouth shut, neither letting words out nor calories in. Her preoccupation with carbs, her inability to ask a question in genetics class without first saying, “Sorry” — Myers blames these learned behaviors on her “shrinking” mother and the other mothers that came before her.

When I read this poem, I applauded Lily Myers. It takes a lot of courage and self-reflection to acknowledge our weaknesses. To acknowledge that we have an unhealthy relationship with food. To recognize our need to speak up for ourselves. I agree that girls from a too-early age are taught to care more about their appearance than their abilities. They are taught to be quiet and reserved while boys are encouraged to say and do whatever they want with the utmost confidence.

I am exactly that girl. In high school and college I was scared to death to say anything in class. Whether it was participating in class discussions or asking a question, I never dreamt of raising my hand. I envied those boys in class that just blurted out the first thing that popped into their heads. I coveted their boldness, their brashness, their confidence.

While I completely understand where Myers is coming from, I do believe it would be an injustice to think women lack strength because they don’t possess the same traits (traditionally) that men do. “Accommodation,” “to filter,” “to grow in,” “to absorb,” “to read the knots on her forehead,” these are the lessons Myers learned from her mother. She believes they are what make women shrink. And I agree; they could be oppressive to women. They could make women submissive. But it is only a possibility and not a fact.

La Lupe has taught me these same traits and has taught me that they can come from a place of power. She accommodates others through hospitality. She can greet and welcome and make room for others and takes great pride in it. In raising a family of eight children on a meager salary, you can be sure that La Lupe learned the strength of accommodation. And not just accommodating physically, but spiritually and emotionally, also.

I did not learn my ability to filter from La Lupe. She is not one to filter admonishments or opinions whatsoever. But rather my mother taught me to wait and observe and think things through. This lesson has served me well. Maybe it’s more the fault of being an introvert, but I am thankful that I don’t say every thought I have. There is no shame in stopping to think, unless it stops us from action, unless it stops us from making our voice heard.

The one, though, that really got me was — “reading the knots on her [Lily’s mother’s] forehead.” This is what I prize most about myself. I have learned to listen to my intuition and observe and perceive the world around me. It has made me a master of reading people, of reading body language and facial expressions. It enables me to be sensitive to those around me and to understand what they are feeling. It has taught me empathy and compassion.

Myers believes that these lessons can teach us the art of disappearance, which they certainly can. But they can also teach us the art of presence. Teach us to do as Jesus did, to meet people with love and humility, to walk alongside our neighbors and serve them, to sacrifice for others. As a mother, I hope to teach my girls the wisdom to filter, the perceptiveness to read the knots in another’s forehead, and the strength to accommodate. And I hope this never makes them shrink but rather empowers them to grow regardless of who or what is around them.