My mom has never been an advice-giver. When I was growing up, she rarely told me what to do, unless I asked her outright. You might think hers was a brilliant psychological trick, that by not being commanded to act or think a certain way, one’s child would become desperate for help and, ultimately, seek the carefully withheld advice.
And of course, I would sometimes go to my mom to ask for guidance. More often than that, I’d simply watch her and how she talked and handled things and, you know, follow her lead. It wasn’t a secret plan, though, on my mom’s part. She just couldn’t stomach telling somebody how to live their life, least of all me.
I say this so you will understand that the advice I asked her for, when I was around 15 years old, was not forced on me like lima beans at dinner or that terrible pink hat my grandmother made for me whose warmth was immediately undone by its static electric effects on my genetically dry hair.
I’d recently been broken up with and I was sure I’d never love anyone or be loved by anyone ever again. “What am I going to do?” I’d asked my mom. As I remember it, I was sitting next to her in the front seat of her car, in the parking lot of JoAnn Fabrics, where she’d uncharacteristically taken us to get something crafty that I’m fairly certain never got crafted, given her full time job. I was blanketed with a feeling of desperation and hopelessness.
“Well,” my mom sighed, in her crisp, pleasant voice, the voice of someone whose father had been in radio, “I always liked to keep a lot of pots on the stove.”
“Oh,” I’d said.
Had I heard her correctly? Had my question been misinterpreted? Perhaps it had gotten muffled behind the thick chenille turtleneck sweater I was wearing.
No, I’d heard right. What my mother was saying was an alternate version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” albeit more forthright. Her version was, essentially, “disperse your eggs into various baskets and then boil those eggs and see how you feel…about all the different eggs.”
Her antidote to the romantic terror and anxiety I was feeling was: don’t just date one guy, you idiot! Date a few. Keep your expectations low and enjoy the cooking process, so to speak. And if they all turn out terribly, well, at least you’re keeping busy!
The next minute, we were out of the car and I was inside the store, staring into large canisters filled with decorative buttons, wondering how I would acquire said pots, let alone get any of them to boil.
Reassessing this as a mother now, I first think, WHERE WERE THE CAVEATS? Why did my mother not pile on a paragraph of disclaimers reminding me to be CAREFUL and USE PROTECTION and TRUST NO ONE, LEAST OF ALL HIGH SCHOOL BOYS?
Though we’d certainly talked before about safe sex, she made no mention of it in the parking lot of JoAnn Fabrics. Nor did she tell me explicitly to follow her lead. She simply said what she had done, way back when.
I’ve never forgotten what she said – nor have I ever ONCE been able to effectively pot-juggle, like her – but I’ve also never forgotten all that she didn’t say. Implicit in those unsaid words was an incredible amount of trust that she had in me.
It is this, I hope, that will inform much of the parenting I have ahead of me. My mother didn’t tell me what to do; she opened herself up and shared what she had done. And she didn’t oversell her hilarious metaphor as the answer to everything because I don’t think she thought it was.
I also don’t think she thought it was hilarious. It really only felt funny to me years later, when I thought about its progressive and feminist undertones (she made no mention of love, she told me to play the field). My mother, by abstaining from giving me advice and offering an anecdote instead, showed me that my life was mine to live.
If my son asks me the same question someday, more likely in an F-train subway car on our way to some specialty meat market where I will buy something decadent that I’ll never cook, I won't advise him to keep lots of pots on the stove (for MANY reasons, though mainly because that’s my mom’s story, not mine), but I will try to guide him the way my mom guided me: honestly and with an open heart.