People blame their parents for their flaws and eccentricities all the time. In interviews, in therapy, in memoirs, they enumerate the many ways their mothers fucked them up. It seems we can’t discuss the way we are without assigning some responsibility to the generation before. Anyone can do it.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was in first grade. My mother picked me up from school in our family Buick, as always. My dad, still in the early years of his medical career, was off working at the hospital most of the time, so the role of daily caretaker fell to her, as it did with most mothers then. She had been a schoolteacher before we were born—me, then my brother—and once she had us, she stayed home and we became her tiny class of two. When we were little, she was the one human being we saw most. She was our guide to how the world worked, not to mention our food source, our referee, our correctional officer, our chief entertainer—the de facto center of our universe.
That afternoon, I unloaded my Wonder Woman book bag onto the vinyl bench seat of our car and showed my mother the stack of papers we’d all been sent home with, a list of words printed on each page. Easy ones like love, candy, bike, and harder ones like breath, power, and understand. That week there was to be a spelling contest, winnowing the class down to the best spellers, ultimately crowning a champion.
Later that evening and every night that week, after my brother had been put to bed, she sat at one end of our green chenille sofa and I sat at the other as she called out two pages’ worth of words for me to spell aloud. I flailed around on the cushions, impatient, wanting to get down and read a book. “Why two?” I whined. “The teacher said one page a day.” My mom—in the same matter-of-fact tone she used for important edicts such as Stay out of the street; Eat your fruit; Go back and brush those teeth again, they’re still yellow—said, “Always do more than expected. That’s how you win.”
That’s how you win.
By the time the spelling bee started on Monday, I was ready. I moved on to the next round and did it all again on Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday. When Friday came, sure enough, I clinched that spelling bee. I don’t remember if I got a medal or whether the other kids high-fived me, but I can vividly remember—as if she were standing in front of me right now—my mother’s beaming face. She raised her eyebrows and nodded as she broke into a smile. She was proud of me, and I was the Wonder Woman of spelling.
Had the term existed back then, my mom probably would have been deemed a tiger mother. She taught my brother and me to read when each of us were three, starting us out with Hop on Pop and Go, Dog, Go! In second grade, she offered me a Rubik’s Cube if I could ace my multiplication tables before the class deadline. In middle school, she woke us up every weekday at 5:45 a.m. to practice our piano. She never used cruelty—we weren’t chained in a cellar practicing fractions, although our protests may have sounded like we were. But through repeated practice, she made it clear that we were not fully prepared until we were overprepared, and that the desired goal, the only goal, was an A. Nobody makes a B in this house.
It was a simple rule—“work first, play later”—and it taught me that the natural order of things was to study hard, achieve your goal and receive the approval of your loved ones, and then (but not a minute before) relax.
We weren’t a family who held hands during the blessing or told each other we loved each other out loud, but the look on my mother’s face when I showed her an A+ said, “I love you.”
Good grades gave me evidence that, at least until the next test, I was secure in my place as a preferred person in my house and in my school and—probably, why not?—in the world. Naturally it stood to reason that the opposite was true as well. I remember the times I didn’t make good grades. There was a decimals test in fourth grade. After we got it back, everyone had to get it signed. I held it out to my mom, searching her face for a reaction as she put her signature on the page right next to the dreaded 80, feeling in my gut the absence of her smile. It was the absence of the ground beneath my feet. I may not have grasped decimals perfectly, but I could do this reverse calculation: If an A means You are loved and you belong here, then anything less than an A must mean You are not and you don’t.
When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you.
I came to rely on grades for my regular jolt of self-esteem. It’s a miracle I didn’t end up with a back injury from bringing all my books home every night in case I realized I needed to complete an extra assignment in something. It became my routine, one that lasted well past middle school into high school and even college, long after the days of bringing grades home for a signature: Study my ass off, panic that my run of luck was over and I’d fail, then get my grades back. The validation would rush to my head, a perfect high. Each hit set chaos into order. Every check mark, every gold star, confirmed it: I succeed, therefore I am.
Perhaps this is why misspelled words cause me a disproportionate amount of rage to this day. When I see mischievous spelled mischeivious I don’t just think, Hey, that’s wrong, I think, WHERE IS THAT WRITER’S SELF-RESPECT? Somewhere inside my brain, first-grade-me is also wondering, aghast, Don’t you want to be loved?
I had a freelance editing client years ago, a CEO who’d been at her job for decades. She refused to accept my edits whenever I removed the double spaces she placed after periods at the ends of sentences. Again and again, I’d strip out the extra spaces and send her documents back with single spaces, and she’d add the spaces back in. That was what she ’d learned in school, she insisted. I’d get purple in the face explaining that, yes, double spaces were required back in the day when everyone used typewriters but that modern word-processing programs had rendered obsolete the manual widening of the space between sentences. One space was the new rule. “Don’t you want to be right?” I’d say, exasperated. “I am right,” she ’d say. Maybe we were too much alike, an impossible match.
I worry that my kids will inherit my worst traits, that they’ll turn out too much like me, fixated on racing to the finish line with a perfect score. So when they walk through the door in the afternoons these days, I ask them what they had for lunch. I don’t actually care what they ate. I mean, I do—I’m their mother, so of course I’m concerned that they’re working their way around the food pyramid or the food train or whatever it is now. The lunch question is about something else.
We’re all a little weird thanks to our mothers. I’m carrying that tradition on with my own children.
I’d be thrilled if my kids made the dean’s list, and you better believe I make them learn those extra spelling words. But I also want my daughter to try a risky science experiment, and when it goes differently than expected, I want her to shrug it off and try another one. I want my son to bring home paintings and clay sculptures he’s proud of because they’re beautiful in his own eyes, not because they got him a good grade.
So I don’t ask them about their grades the minute they come home. Silently, I give myself an A+ for this move. I award myself an invisible certificate of achievement for parenting excellence, with high honors in nurturing a value system that emphasizes effort and curiosity over quantification. I do that because over in a little corner of my head, six-year-old-me sits on a big green sofa, clutching her spelling pages, wanting desperately to hear, Good job. She never left; she ’ll never leave. It’s too late for her, but not for them. They can be better than I am.
Maybe they’ll grow up to have a strange obsession with lunch, and blame me.
So there you have it.
When I was growing up, my mother was a hard-ass, and she turned me compulsive.
It’s all my mother’s fault.
* * *
When I was growing up, my mother was my cheerleader, and she made me successful.
It’s all to my mother’s credit.
Chapel Hill. First grade. My mom picked me up from school. Left to my own devices, I might have crammed those spelling pages back to the bottom of my book bag with the empty, peanut-butter-smeared sandwich baggies and the balled-up sweatshirt I hadn’t worn in a month.
But my mother intervened and changed everything. She had seen how quickly I took to books, how I’d sit and read, focusing until I got to the end of a story. She had noticed how naturally I recalled a word once I’d seen it a single time. She saw potential I could not have seen in myself at that age. She reached for that stack of spelling words.
And so my brother was sent to bed while I was allowed to stay up. I got to snuggle into the nubby pillows of the green sofa next to my mom as I learned tricks for training my brain to hold as much as it could. I found that if you spell a word out loud five times in a row, the sixth time is a snap.
“Hair. H-a-i-r. Hair,” I spelled.
“Yes!” she cried.
I started spelling words in conversation: “I’m going o-u-t-s-i-d-e now.” “Do I have to wash my f-a-c-e tonight?” My mother showed me how to bump up against what felt like the natural limits of my mind and then keep pushing into the territory that lay beyond.
When I won that spelling bee, I got a smile from my mom that no one else got. This wasn’t just regular love like all kids got from their parents. This was extra love, something more, just for me. It filled me up, and I would never again settle for anything less.
When I held out my math test with a B on it, she didn’t reward me with a smile, because she believed I could have made an A. In time, I believed I could make A’s, too. She held me to the standards she knew I could meet. As if running alongside my bike with a hand on my seat, then letting go, she guided me until I could excel on my own.
My work ethic helped me earn my way into opportunities that changed my life: contests, college, jobs, assignments. I became a person other people can count on, someone they trust to do a good job. I grew to think of myself this way, as a helpful person, a reliable person.
My mother the wonder woman made me a wonder woman, too.
* * *
Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.
That’s how I think of that first-grade spelling bee. Did it really change me from one kind of person into another? I suspect it was less a cause of my perfectionism than simply the first manifestation of it, but I remember it as a before-and-after marker on my timeline. My best guess is that something within me, some strand of DNA, was extra susceptible to the idea of quantifiable self-worth, and school was the perfect environment for it to thrive. (Seriously: a spelling bee for first graders? The 1980s were hard-core.) Plenty of other kids had strict parents, too, but they didn’t all become obsessive about grades. My brother grew up right alongside me, but when he got a B, he just went into his room and played his Bon Jovi tapes. Big deal.
Of all the genes parents pass down and values they instill, how does one take hold so much stronger than the others? How do two kids with the same genetic ingredients and upbringing turn into such different people? My brother became a high-achieving student, too, but also a sneaky, laid-back teenager, the kid who hid beer in our backyard tree house and laughed it off when he got caught. I became uptight and anxious, the one who religiously performed all three steps of the Clinique three-step cleansing system every night because the instructions said, Wash, tone, moisturize. He stood right next to me when my mother said, “Practice your piano for thirty minutes each while I’m at the grocery store.” So why did I slog through thirty minutes of Beethoven every time and then watch in fuming rage as he played video games? Does it even matter why?
It filled me up, and I would never again settle for anything less.
There’s not much I’d blame any parent for, honestly, now that I am one. Cruelty, neglect, abuse—absolutely—but word-drilling on the green sofa? No. We’re all a little weird thanks to our mothers. I’m carrying that tradition on with my own children.
What a job, to raise someone from birth to adulthood, bestowing upon them your knowledge and your values and, despite your best intentions, any number of traits you’ve inherited yourself. What a loaded task, to make every move, every day, in such a way that the impressionable larva-person in your home will see your example, process it into something within themselves, and grow layers of muscle and soul over it until she is a fully developed human being. And all the while, the little person you’re nurturing is fighting you—spitting out the broccoli, not wearing the helmet, rolling her eyes at your carefully chosen words of advice—–and you become constantly worn down even as you pour your energies into loving her.
My mom gave me all the tools she had, some of which I couldn’t use. She grew up to be a plant whisperer after helping her dad tend his garden in the wild green lot behind their little house outside Birmingham, Alabama, and she tried to teach me to be one, too. I used to follow her around our backyard, watching her reach into a mass of stems and leaves with her clippers and snip this bloom or that one to toss into her basket; then I’d sit mesmerized as she stuck them into vases and bowls, creating what looked like tabletop parade floats. She ’d coach me to do the same—“Here, put some greenery in, make it look softer”—and I’d stab a branch into the bunch, ruining the loose beauty of her arrangement. You point to anything with roots, and she can name it, arrange it, and/or cook it, and I can’t keep a pot of basil alive for longer than a week. Why didn’t that stick?
What did stick—whether she intended to pass it along or not—was her sense of humor. When it came to academics, my mom may have been a warlord zipped into the body of Sally Field, but the rest of the time, she cracked us up. Whenever a Little Richard song came on the car radio, she would bust a move at the wheel like a one-woman episode of Dance Fever. She let me play beauty salon and make dozens of tiny pigtails all over her head with my colorful plastic barrettes. When I was bothered by the fact that none of my Barbies had underwear, she sewed a complete trousseau of tiny lingerie. Like her, I love little visual absurdities (ah, the inherent hilarity of a teeny-weeny doll bra), dry one-liners and well-timed cracks, and perfectly executed, utterly insane mishmashes of curse words. (My mom, upon walking into a messy room: “It looks like the ass end of destruction in here.” The ass end of destruction!)
When I was seventeen, I might have told you I was a neurotic student because my mom was so tough about grades. When I was twenty-five, I might have shrugged and said, eh, maybe it was my mom who made me a control freak or maybe I’m just me, who knows. By the time I reached my thirties and had my own children, I knew perfect parenting was a myth, and I understood that while she was responsible for making me, she couldn’t have known how I’d end up made. No one could have. That’s a little mystery we all unfurl on our own.
* * *
“Wonder Woman” is an excerpt from the book I Miss You When I Blink © 2019 by Mary Laura Philpott, published by Atria Books on April 2, 2019.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands