When connecting with other women leaders, I’m always surprised and disappointed with the small number of strong female mentors and influencers they have in their lives. There are articles abound on how women don’t help each other enough in their professional development. In fact, a simple Google search brings up stories in outlets like Time, Huffington Post and My Domaine about the lack of support women feel in the workplace by female colleagues and leaders.
I have been very fortunate to have had a few. The most influential, of course, was my mother. It’s been 11 years since she passed and I would like to dedicate this article to the lessons I learned watching her, emulating her and sharing ideas with her.
My mother was a radical.
She would hate being characterized as such, but she was far from conventional in her approach to life and her career. She was highly influenced by the feminists of her time, dedicated to her patients and a student of life – always reading, learning, challenging the status quo. At the same time, she celebrated her femininity and coveted her individuality.
Here are some of the valuable lessons I learned from her throughout the years:
Lesson #1: Don’t buy into body image norms
I hated being the only girl at school without a Barbie doll. When I would ask for one, she would laugh and say: why would I want to play with a toy that doesn’t look like a real girl? This lesson was one of the hardest as I wanted nothing more than to be like all the other girls in my class. But now, I’m incredibly grateful not to have been surrounded by unrealistic ideals of women.
Lesson #2: Surround yourself with nurturing female friends
For most of my formative years, my mother was very ill, plagued with a brain tumor that took doctors over 25 years to discover. Building her therapy practice, raising two children and pursuing her Master’s in Social work was nearly impossible. But she got through it all with the help of her friends and support network. They understood it was hard but encouraged her to continue anyway. Their advice and support got her through some dark times. Still to this day, I am in awe of the powerful women she chose to surround herself with.
Lesson #3: Show up
Show up to the gym, even when you feel horrible, working out is an investment in you. Show up to meetings and take your seat at the table, your voice matters. Show up for your children’s big moments, they only come once. Show up for your friends when they need a shoulder and a sympathetic ear. It’s amazing how effective it is to just show up.
Lesson #4: Invest in yourself
Education and life-long learning was a true passion of hers. She studied constantly. Her nightstand always had a stack of dog-eared books with handwritten notes inside and underlined passages. One of her proudest moments was seeing me off to McGill to study. Invest in your ideas, read avidly and share your passion.
Lesson #5: Trust your instincts
I took some very wrong turns in life – everyone does. There are cringe-worthy clothes, boys and stories in my past. And, most of the time, I knew when they weren’t right for me. She would say, if it feels wrong, stop doing it. It seems simple, but when immersed in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, sometimes you need a reminder to do what’s right for you. You know yourself better than anyone.
Lesson #6: Know when to walk away
When my brother was only six months old, my mother made the decision to leave her husband and his father. She was a single mother in the 70s living on her own, starting her career as a social worker. This was a tough decision and a road that she knew would be difficult. But she knew that it would be easier for my brother to leave while he was very young, then stay in a marriage that wasn’t right for her. She remarried two years later to her life partner, my father. My brother has always been grateful that he had one strong father figure throughout his entire formative years. It takes true strength of character to know when to walk away and I reflect on this often in my career and personal life. In tough situations, I ask myself in tough situations, ‘is it time to walk away?’
Lesson #7: Find a partner that helps you grow
“How do I know if I have found the right partner, Mum?” I remember asking on one of our frequent drives to Banff National Park for the weekend. Time surrounded by nature was so healing, and I still cherish these weekends alone with her. Her reply was very simple. “The right person will help you grow and become a better version of yourself. You’ll know when you have found them.” If you are a better, more challenged person with them, you have found the right life partner.