Monday, June 2, 2008

Advice From a Dead Mother

Since I probably won't be alive to watch my kids grow up, I've been writing to them in their journals about some of the things I'd talk to them about if I were alive.

There's a lot of advice out there about the sort of things a dying mother should write to her kids. The "Mummy Diaries" is a TV series from the U.K. that tells the stories of five families with mothers who are dying. You can see the three-part program by clicking HERE.

I don't agree with some of the suggestions in this program and in many books and articles about this topic. One thing they say I should do is leave a book of advice for the kids with headings by topic such as "sex", "drugs", "marriage", etc. I'm supposed to tell the kids when to have sex, to drink or not to drink, what to study in school, how to get along with their spouses, how to discipline their own children, and so on.

I'm not doing this. I don't want to micro-manage my kids' lives from the grave. I think it's bad enough to be nagged at by a mother who's alive, I certainly don't want to nag them from the grave. And just think of the guilt they'd feel if they didn't do what I asked them to do. I don't want them to feel like I'd be disappointed because they didn't choose the job, lifestyle, religion, or partner I would've wanted for them.

A lot of people say I should leave behind letters for them to mark the important events in their lives. So when Josie gets married, she can open a letter from me saying I'm sorry I couldn't be there on her wedding day, how happy I am that she's found a man who loves her and deserves her, and maybe some advice about how to have a happy marriage thrown in for good measure.

Or a letter with mother-to-daughter advice that she can open when she's pregnant with her first baby. Or letters for when Josie and Toby graduate from college or get their first jobs or other big life events.

I'm not doing this either. What if Josie and Toby don't get married? What if they decide not to have children or maybe even can't have children? What if they decide not to go to college? Will they feel like failures in their dead mother's eyes because they didn't follow the script?

Instead of telling my kids how to live their lives, I'm using the journals and videos I'm leaving behind to tell them about their mother. I'm telling them stories about me so they can feel like they know me, even after I'm gone.

I'm telling them about how I met their Dad and how I fell in love with him. From this, Toby might get some good tips on what women find attractive in men, or Josie might get some good tips on how to know when you've found the man you'll love for life. I'm telling them about the times I thought I might have fallen out of love with their Dad. From this, Josie and Toby might be able to learn other things about love and commitment and the reality of relationships.

I'm telling them about some of the things I've done in my life that I'm proud of and some things I'm not so proud of. I'm telling them about things I wish I could do differently and why. From this, they'll see that I wasn't perfect and maybe they won't feel so bad when they, too, make mistakes. Better yet, maybe they'll avoid making the same mistakes.

I'm telling them about my views on religion, social responsibility, environmental conservation, philanthropy, self-reliance, and many other issues I have strong opinions about. From this, they'll see what was important to me and how I felt about such issues.

But I won't tell them they have to think or live as I did. I won't tell them they have to agree with me or be like me. I'll simply tell them about me so they can know me.

Some of you will say it's my responsibility as a mother to guide them through life by giving them advice or at least some sort of framework for what I expect from them. I don't think I need to leave behind an instruction manual to do that.

I have faith that if I leave behind my stories and thoughts, that will be enough guidance from me. I have faith that Tony will raise my children to be the people we'd both be proud of. I have faith in our circle of friends and our extended families to tell my kids about me and what I valued.

I have faith that Josie and Toby will have more of a mother after I'm gone than some people with living mothers have.


Francesca Giessmann said...

shin... just great... this was the toughest topic for me... i , too, wanted to leave something behind that was the right way and like u I didnt want it to be. .do that or dont do that...
so I began writing who I was... from trivial things like the my favorite foods and music to my big passionate causes in life that I believe Leonardo can learn from...

your last line has moved me.. more than much has lately...
a big kiss from Sunny Switzerland
PS : has Max gone home?

Shin said...


Thanks for your comments. Funny, I didn't think about the fun stuff like my favorite foods or music. Maybe I should talk about that sort of thing as well.

Yes, Max has gone home. We're hoping he gets to have some pain-free time with his family for as long as he can.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin......this touched a chord with me. I lost my mum when I was a lot younger. The two things I would ask if I could....what was my birth weight and what is her recipe for her famous tomato soup. As fab as my dad is, he just doesn't know these things! It is the trivial things that mean so much more to me than what her advice on marriage, babies etc would have been. I would love to sit with her and ask her lots about her. I know I have inherited lots of Mum's traits, the older I get the more I can see. The one thing I love seeing is her handwriting.....means so much.
Comments on back of photos are just the best to unexpectedly find, comments alongside a recipe....very hard to explain how they make me feel.
Being on the other side of the fence, you are doing what I would want.
Much love
Sasha x

ALI KATI said...

That was really moving. As someone who's had a colourful parental background - I can say it's far more important for a child to feel like they have a relationship with their parent, than to be offered moral advice, though that can be useful as a point of view.

Francesca make a good point about how your children would want to know as much about you as they can - everything from your first kiss, your childhood memories to your likes/dislikes in movies. There's so much I wish I could still ask my Dad, and most of it is just "dumbass" stuff like - er, why did you wear red swimming trunks, or who was your best friend when you were 10.

The other thing is, I think children also want to feel like they're known and understood by their parent in all their wondrous individuality. I know your kids are young at the moment, but they will probably have started to show distinct personalities, interests and so forth. Tell them stories about themselves too - stories that you've observed to show who they are that affirm their sense of self in their childhood too. For some reason, it's nice to know what our parents saw in us.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I saw some forget-me-knots in the park and thought of my mother. They are one of her favorite flowers. When I see them it makes me smile. I think it is her saying hello and giving me encouragement. It always seems to be just at the time I need it that I hear one of her songs or see one of her flowers.
I was driving a few days after 9/11 feeling very anxious and afraid and I heard "Up a Lazy River" on the radio. I can't remember hearing it before or since. It's my Dad's signature song. Listening to it felt like my Dad saying "It's going to be OK".
I don't know if anyone can look out for us after they die but I know that if my parents can they are. Seeing one of their favorite things reminds me of them and their love.
Love, Carol

Cindy C said...

Shin - You don't know me, but I know you. Through your blogs,sometimes I think I know you better than I know many of my close friends. I was introduced to you by Evelyn, a friend I know through work. Sometimes the intimacy of your writing takes my breath away - your honesty and strength are astonishing.

I lost my mom to breast cancer 8 years ago; I had a preventative double-mastectomy 3 years ago. So to me, we are (to coin my mom's phrase) "sisters in the fight."
Having lost my mom, I totally agree with your approach to your children. Advice is not what I wish I had now ... it's more of her. Every day, I wish I could have just a little bit more of her.

Here's some more insight from someone who often thinks "I wish mom were here so I could ask her ... "
Mostly, I want to ask her how she FELT when life events happened. Specifically, because my children are growing up, I wish I could talk to her about the whole idea of empty nesting; of rediscovering your spouse after the children are gone, about aging and facing that as a woman (entirely different from men!). How did menopause make you feel and how did you cope with those feelings?

Hoping this might help you as you write to your kids. Although my mom probably never considered it because we were adults when she got sick - how I would have treasured anything she would have left.

No matter how old, we just never, never, ever stop needing our moms.