Whitney Johnson on Mother’s Day

One Thing I Never Expected to Learn as a Mother

“Mom, I don’t want to take the after-school science class,” my 12 year-old announced early one morning.

Judging by her slightly defiant posture, it was apparent that my generally tractable daughter had to muster the courage to say ‘no’.

Just a few weeks prior she’d finished up a sewing class that I’d been wholly convinced she wanted to take, only to learn from my husband that she’d grumped to him repeatedly about it. “Why didn’t she tell me?”, I asked.

“Because you can be pretty hard to say no to…”

My daughter is young enough that I can suggest, nudge, or even require that she do as I say.   And, in this instance, who would find fault with my arm-twisting rationale? Studying science could open so many doors for her, she has an aptitude for it, and I think she will enjoy it.

But what of teaching her to believe that what she has to say matters?  That she is worthy of respect? If I force my daughter to study science (or sewing), she may learn a lesson I never intended: to shrink from speaking her mind. Repeat this scenario several times and I risk crushing her sense of self.  No matter how many doors science could open, would I have closed the door on her?

According to Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson, every woman and man comes equipped with a psychological structure that includes qualities characterized as “feminine” and “masculine”.  Our capacity for relatedness and love is feminine, while our ability to wield power and control situations is masculine.  In order to become a complete person, we need to develop both.

For most of my life, I have believed that learning to wield power and control situations could be best done in the workplace. I have learned many valuable lessons about wielding power well throughout my career on Wall Street.  But these pale compared to what I have learned about power at home.

Where and when else does one have so much unfettered power?  A child is wholly dependent on us for food and shelter, and for approval. Parenthood can easily become a dictatorship: we can do pretty much what we want with our kids, our sovereignty unquestioned. Our influence as mothers, for good or ill, is a power we must wield with great care. Henry Ward Beecher put it, “What the mother sings at the cradle goes all the way down to the coffin.”

With regard to the class my daughter didn’t want to take, I finally said, “You don’t have to, but I will ask you to have a conversation with your teacher to find out exactly what you would be doing.  Then, if you still don’t want to, I will let it go.  Oh, and by the way, I am really proud of you for standing up to me.”

When Frodo, from The Lord of the Rings, encouraged by Lady Galadriel’s goodness and wisdom, offers her the Ring, she wants to accept it, desperately.  She says, “I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer.  And now at last it comes… I shall be beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night, stronger than the foundations of the earth.  All shall love me and despair.”   As a mother, every single day of our lives, we are offered this Ring.  We can use the power to bend our children to our will, telling ourselves it’s best for them, or we can teach our children as best we can, and then allow them to both make and own the consequences of their choices.

I like to think that in this instance, I passed the quiz with my daughter.  But I won’t know if I passed the test until my children no longer need to come home.  Once they have left to navigate uncharted waters, will they at last stand up to me because they never quite could before and rarely return, or will they see our relationship as a safe harbor?  Will the river of their life flow back to us when there are no compulsory means?  Hoping it’s the latter, I will remember that this Mother’s Day, it’s possible the best gift my children can give me is to ‘just say no’ (once in awhile), knowing they can.

image credit: teachersreflect.com

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Whitney Johnson is the co-founder of Clay Christensen’s Rose Park Advisors, blogs for Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn, and is the author of Dare, Dream, Do:  Remarkable Things When You Dare to Dream.  She is available for speaking and consulting.

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