I remember only two occasions when my mom really landed on me. Once, in high school, I stayed overnight at a friend’s house without letting my parents know. The other: I was 11 or so and repeated a joke I had heard involving the N word. “You will never, ever use that word again,” Mom said with a level glare.
I still haven’t. Can’t. Not even repeating something somebody else said. My mom managed to convey — mostly with that look — that the word was hateful, and therefore unacceptable.
But those were the exceptions. She did — and still does — everything with kindness, warmth and affection. That was the magic trick. She got me to do exactly what parents want their kids to do without ever having to raise an eyebrow.
Come to think of it, the exceptions actually prove the rule: She really just had to look at me crosswise. No need for a lecture or grounding or taking away the car. I don’t think she said a word as I slunk back into the house at 9 a.m. after the impromptu sleepover.
She inspired me because she always did the right things, and I wanted to make her happy. I never worried that I’d be in trouble with Mom; it wasn’t like she represented my nagging conscience. I think I just constantly carried around in the back of my mind her smiling face, expecting me to do what I really ought to do. She is the light, not the darkness.
This is not to say that she raised an angel, or that her method of parenting was foolproof. Far from it. I’m sure I drank more underage Old Milwaukee than I would have, had I been raised by strict authoritarians with a whole-house alarm system. I occasionally abused the trust.
But my sins are my own, not my mom’s. Heck, the reason I even knew that they were sins was just imagining how my mom would look at me if she knew what I was doing.
What she’s responsible for is everything that’s good in me: The empathy, the kindness, the love, to whatever degree I show those now. When I saw her looking at me, I knew I was worthy of all that, and I knew (by her example) that’s how I’m supposed to treat others. My brother says the same thing.
My close friends felt it, too. She was often mildly amused, always welcoming, always warm and affectionate to all of them, no matter what we were up to. So we often ended up there, one way or another. There was no guilting, no inquisition. They still drop by to see her whenever they’re in town.
A mother’s job is enormous and complicated, and a working or single mom, or a stepmom’s burdens are compounded by many other factors. My mom stayed at home, while my dad worked, so they didn’t shoulder those other loads. That’s still the basic deal. Mom gave up a teaching career; Dad gave up some time at home. I think they would both tell you now they’re happy with the trade-off, though they are both fully aware of the costs.
Why she made those choices, and why she chose to parent us the way she did, probably has something to do with her own upbringing. But that’s only my speculation, and that’s another story for another day. As her son, I can really only speak about her as a mom.
At the center of any parent’s job, it seems to me, is love. You don’t have to like your kids all the time, but you have to convey to them all the time that you love them, that you want the best for them, and that you expect the best from them. My mom did that without ever really having to say a word.
I just knew. Just from the way she looked at me.
So to my mom, Karen Seaton, on Mother’s Day, 2019, I’d just like to say this:
Thanks for that look, Mom.
I love you, too.