Happy Birthday, Mom: A Primer on Self-Esteem

My mother 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 this site but I actually have decent 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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16 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Mom: A Primer on Self-Esteem”

  1. Jack Jackson says:

    Nice one Dr Rob. It sucks that it rings out with me, but for opposite reasons. I wish your mother much luck on her birthday.

  2. goats says:

    I’m sure she was secretly happy, but didn’t want to appear vulnerable…my mother would do the same to me…..I think it was real nice of you.

  3. LexiconSheDevil says:

    You did the right thing by visiting your mother on this milestone birthday, and that im sure was enough to solidify your reasoning for going on the trip, albeit what your mother’s reaction was.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Really liked this one, wish I could have had those thoughts put in my head as a child like you did. And at least she said a woman in her right mind wouldnt marry you, cause that still leave a lot of us women out there who would.

  5. Amber says:

    You’ve made me miss my mother. And my son.

  6. Nan Tucket says:

    Sounds like you’ve got a very lovely mom, Dr. Rob. You were (and are) indeed one lucky scamp. Would you consider occasionally renting her out to those not as fortunate? Me, for example.

  7. I loved this post! Happy birthday Dr. Rob’s mom. I think I’ve grown up feeling the same way about myself for the most part– taught to me by both of my parents. Being an only child I’m sure played a role. But I have to tell you my mother would have been so excited for a surprise visit. And she would have begged me to stay, not told me to buy her an e-card.

  8. Celeste says:

    I dunno Dr. Rob. I’d kinda like to marry you.

  9. PJ says:

    Dr Rob, it sounds like you have the second best mom in the world. 😉

  10. Anonymous says:

    I may not be in my right mind but Im working on getting there, but I would marry you any day cause you are so awesome and good looking!

  11. Anonymous says:

    So what do you say to people who didn’t grow up with a mother?
    Dr. Rob Note: A lot of people ask this question and there probably isn’t a great answer to it. If you broaden the definition of “mother” it’s really anyone who has a major influence on you, both positive and negative, during your formative years. Fathers, coaches, teachers, siblings, peers, and religious figures can all take on that role and sometimes people piece together a “mother” from various sources.

  12. tashe says:

    Off and on I’ve been reading a smirkily funny and thought-provoking book called Generation Me. Kinda fits in with the self-esteem and narcissism issues noted as of late (just sayin’…). Plus, it’s muy witty.

  13. John Kimbert says:

    You lonely, lonely man.

  14. cmloveiv says:

    Great story. I think that you Mom got it right. Hope that I can do as well with my kids.

  15. Hannah says:

    What should we do if we perceived our parent(s) as verbally abusive and probably mangled whatever attempts at a normal self-image? The unwind and re-stitching process I suppose.

  16. Lisa says:

    I got mixed messages from my mother. Completely positive and uplifting when she was sober. Self-esteem destroying when she was not. Which is why she was simultaneously my best friend and worst enemy. She died 5 1/2 years ago, and I’m still trying to process my relationship with her. Wish I’d had the guts to begin it when she was alive, though. Might have been good for her too. I miss her so much, both the person she was and the person I wish she could have been.