A few months ago I was sitting with my dear friend Michelle Long, founder of Bloom Retreat and Becoming Grace talking about motherhood. Michelle’s children are 19 months apart (mine will be 18), and I have been leaning on her a lot for support and advice. Michelle revealed to me that her mother passed away in the midst of having her children, and I just couldn’t imagine. My mother has been my number one support around becoming a mother myself, and I couldn’t imagine doing this without her. Michelle told me about how her mother has shaped her work in the world, what she taught her and the beautiful moment she had with her Mom when she listened to a recorded conversation they had that Michelle had been avoiding for years. I knew that I had to share her story with you because the lesson she left behind is critical.
It’s almost Mother’s Day – a day that is bittersweet for me. It’s sweet because all day my kids (now 6 and 8) will shower me with their love. I will get breakfast in bed, sweet homemade cards, hugs and kisses, flowers, snuggles, and most likely the two will fight over who gives me their present first. My kids teach me about unconditional love. They have such adoration for me that when I really sink into what that means, it can overwhelm me and bring me to tears. It is the best.
But Mother’s Day is bitter for me too because I lost my own mom to breast cancer more than seven years ago. She was an incredible mother and a best friend to me. I think of her more as a soul sister. She loved me like no one else has, and saw me for all that I am and all she knew I could be. My mom has been one of my greatest teachers, and today, I want to share with you what she taught me, because we all need to hear it.
First a little background. The year my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got pregnant. It was unplanned and I did not feel ready to have a baby. My whole world was rocked. I felt like I needed my mom then more than ever, but right as I was becoming a mom myself, I was also nursing her and trying to be present with her during her passing. She died when my baby was only 8 months old.
There was something I learned during that intense time that I will keep with me forever. In the end it became clear that my mom struggled with something her whole life – something I see a lot of women struggle with, including myself.
You see, my mom was the kind of woman who gave everything she had to everyone else. She was the PTA and swim team president, she volunteered time at a homeless shelter where she served food to people in need, she would take teens into her home who needed support and love, she had tons of friends who she would do anything for, she was a devoted wife, and an incredible mother. She gave and gave, but growing up, I never saw her give back to herself.
I know this was hard on her. She was overweight for much of her life. She was unhappy in her marriage, she battled with depression, and while her life looked good on the outside, she really wasn’t very happy. Looking back, it was like her soul had been dimmed. I whole-heartedly believe this was part of the reason she got so sick.
Interestingly, in the last two years of her life, when she had been diagnosed and knew in her heart she didn’t have much time left, my mom started to wake up. As Sarah would say, she started to “live more.” In those last two years, my mom came out of her shell and started to live in a way that I didn’t recognize. She started wearing leopard print clothing, she dyed her hair purple before going into chemo, she was interested in spirituality, and she became a different woman — a vibrant, fun, deep, amazing human being who I didn’t really know growing up. My mom found her roar and became herself in the end, and I am grateful to have witnessed her coming out. She was awesome.
Right after the birth of my first baby and six months before my mom died, we were both feeling really raw and emotional. We knew the end was near and I wanted to somehow freeze time. I recorded a conversation with my mother on an old cassette tape, where we talked about cancer, healing, motherhood, and hardships. She was open and candid with me and I was grateful that I was able to save that little piece of her. I held onto that tape for the next six years without ever listening to it. I missed her too much. But last Mother’s Day, I brought it out and heard her voice for the first time since she died.
I sat alone and cried as she spoke. It had been so long since I recorded it that I didn’t remember anything we had talked about, so it was like having a brand new conversation with her. And the amazing thing was, it was like she was speaking to me about what I am going through today.
You see, today I have a husband, two kids, two cats, a house, and I run my own business where I hold space for a community of women. My life is very full, and sometimes I catch myself getting caught up in the pace of everything and I don’t remember to take care of myself. This was the theme of my recorded conversation with my mother. On that old tape, she spoke directly to me about how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life in the midst of all the busyness.
Her words felt like a gift, so I wanted to share some of what she said. We were talking about what she had learned through having cancer. There were three things that stood out to me:
She told me that “fulfillment in life comes from finding your spirit.” My mom realized that she had to discover who she was beneath her roles as a wife, mother and career woman in order to feel whole.
She said that cancer taught her to “slow down and watch the sunsets.” It taught her to enjoy back rubs, warm blankets, slow conversations, and chocolate chip cookies. She wanted me to “keep enjoying life – every single moment, even when things are crappy.”
Finally, she told me her secret to healing her spirit: “Build support around you because it keeps you strong, but also know that, in the end, you are the one that has to heal your spirit – don’t wait for people to heal you.”
When she passed away, it was as if my mother’s roar – her strength and power – entered me and began to push me on my own journey into myself. I began to go deeper into my own self work, I stepped in front of my fears and started my own business, and I challenged myself to become all of who I am. I began to understand what it means to take care of myself and truly love myself.
It’s because of my mom that I am committed to living the very best life possible. And I don’t mean eventually, when my kids are grown, or when things slow down and I have more time or more money. I mean now. This includes setting boundaries and giving back to myself.
It’s now my mission to take everything I’ve learned (and am still learning) and bring it to other women. I believe it is time that we as women start advocating for ourselves and living lives that we feel good about, right now.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I invite you to slow down – to enjoy your kids, the quiet conversations with loved ones, and maybe even watch the sunset. I invite you to ask yourself what your spirit needs in order to thrive, and to start going after those things. I invite you to reach out to your sisters and friends, and build a cheer team around yourself so that you can heal your spirit and thrive. I invite you to bloom.
If you have your mom with you today, I hope that you talk to her and have a good laugh and cry. Absorb every minute. Hug her. Thank her. Love her up.
A note from Sarah: What struck me most about this story is that as women we are driving to do so much for other people because we deeply care, and on some level, although we hate to admit it, because we want to be liked, feel worthy and like we are pulling our weight or contributing. Michelle’s Mother shows us so clearly that we don’t need to do all those things to feel loved or to be admired. Does it mean we have to give ‘all the giving’ up? Of course not, but we have to stop doing it at the sacrifice of our happiness, health and well being. There is a space in between of taking care of others and taking care of ourselves. If you are struggling with this I would strongly encourage you to visit Michelle’s Retreat Center, Bloom Retreat here in the Bay Area or check out her online program, Becoming Grace. And of course, make sure to sign up for our summer challenge where I will be walking you through a small activity everyday to nurture yourself.
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