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Happy Birthday, Mom: A Primer on Self-Esteem

Posted Nov 13 2008 10:09am

Mymother turns 65 today. I flew down to South Carolina last weekend, unannounced, to surprise her for a birthday celebration. After a three-hour delay and turbulent flight where I couldn't even get a bag of peanuts (or a vodka tonic), I walked through her front door, exhausted, close to midnight. When she saw me she said simply, "What are you doing here?"

"It's your birthday weekend. I'm here to surprise you."

She looked unimpressed.

"Surprise!" I said weakly.

"What a waste of money. Next time send an e-card."

I went up to the guest room and thought about how I never let her...honesty get under my skin. This might be hard to believe after a trip through the Archives but I actually have high self-esteem. And, ironically, my mother is the reason why.

Most mental health theorists and practitioners believe that a child's relationship with his mother is a major factor in determining his psychological health as an adult. For most of my childhood I grew up in a one-parent home, and while my father is a great man, I spent most of my time with my mother after they got divorced.

When I was very young I knew how to count to 20 in Spanish (for comparison purposes, I can only count to three in Spanish today). According to family members, I would go to my neighbors' houses and count for them. And it wasn't just rote memorization. They would tell me to skip numbers, count backwards, start at 11 and so on. They would give me cookies for entertaining them and I would bring them home and show my mom before I ate them. She would smile proudly and pick me up. "You are such a smart young man," she told me, "the best boy a mother could ask for."

I'm told that I took longer than the average child to stop drinking from a bottle. No one knew why but I simply refused to give it up. One day my mother sat me down and said, "Robert, you are a big, strong boy now. You don't need this bottle anymore. I want you to throw it away and drink from a glass like the big, wonderful boy that you are." She stood next to me and clapped, cheering and throwing her fists into the air as I put my trust in her and threw away the bottle. She picked me up, looked me at me squarely, and said "You can do anything you want if you try your best. You are a fantastic young boy."

I remember coming home from school, probably in the first grade, and pouring a glass of soda. I took out a box of straws from the cupboard and said to my mother as I opened it, "Look. All the straws together look like that thing in a bee hive."

My mother smiled. "Yes, a honeycomb. You are so smart and creative! What a bright young man you are."

When I was fifteen my friends and I stole a bag of cookies at the beach from a family who had gotten up to go in the ocean. It was stupid and it didn't feel right to do it. I told my mother what I did. She sat me down and looked at me very seriously. "Robert, you are a good person. Do not steal from other people. That's not what a wonderful young man like you does. You are not a thief."

Events like these stick with you for your entire life. They form the template for your mental health as an adult. These messages aren't like the ones I railed against when I spoke about narcissistic celebrities. Good parents teach you that you have value, are worthwhile and that you should respect yourself. This is not the same as teaching a child he is superior, entitled or more deserving.

Life got a lot harder for my mother as I became an adult which took a toll on her nurturing streak. But that can't change my own self-view. So when my mom tells me that no woman in her right mind would marry me it doesn't stick, even though she may be correct. The High Self-Esteem Label is branded into my head. It's tattooed, an indelible tapestry. That's why it can take years of therapy to help people who feel horrible about themselves. The messages we take in as a child stick with us, a tight coil of string that has to slowly be unwound and re-stitched over time.

I'm lucky, more fortunate than most, to have been told the right messages, even if she doesn't give them as often these days. In fact I'm free to amp up my mother's more sardonic streak in my writing because I find it quite amusing at this stage of my life. In many ways she fancies herself a cutting wit like David Sedaris' mother but she's much more than that front she likes to portray. She knew how to get those all-too-important words into my skull. So now she can get away with more biting statements because she created a foundation of self-assuredness in me.

This is reading like a bad Mitch Albom novel so I'll wrap it up by simply picking up my glass of pinot noir and saying, "Happy Birthday, Mom. And thanks."

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