I Dare To Dream, Because My Mother Couldn't

An exercise in instilling the next generation with the ability to think big, through one Mom who did just that.

"How did your mother teach you to dream, and how do you hope to teach your children to dream?" 

For Mother’s Day, my friend, Whitney Johnson, a venture capitalist and popular Harvard Business Review blogger, challenged me to answer these intriguing questions. With her new book, Dare, Dream, Do she’s on a 5-9-2012 1-41-54 PM mission to inspire women of all ages to dream big and make those dreams a reality—especially mothers, who can be a child’s most powerful dream teacher.

Honestly, I hadn’t given the topics of dreaming, my mother, and my kids much thought before, but the exercise helped me realize two important truths:

  1. My mother did encourage me to dream, but she used a "don’t do as I did" reverse playbook.  She saw her life as a cautionary tale of what happens when you either don’t know you can dream, or you believe you always have to put everyone else’s dreams first.
  2. Because my mother taught me to dream, albeit in a somewhat backhanded way, I’m able to take a more direct "do as I do" approach with my daughters. 

Here are some key pages from my mother’s "don’t do as I did" reverse playbook for dreaming:

Don’t worry about boys. Focus on yourself, your friends, activities, sports, and school.  You have your whole life to be married.  My mother, Margaret "Peg" Hill Williams (pictured below), was born in 1941 in Queens, New York and grew up in Long Island.  Her intellect was legendary.  In high school, she received a scholarship to an Ivy League school but turned it down to follow her boyfriend, who had gone to another college.

This regret led to the first page in her reverse dream playbook.  The above mantra is one she repeated regularly throughout high school and college and it freed me from the "you have to have a boyfriend" pressure so many of my friends felt.

Even though I struggle with it, don’t be embarrassed to be smart and curious.  I attended the same college as my mother. It was there that I began to realize just how unusually smart she was. When she’d look at my course list and recognize the name of one of her former professors, she’d say, "He probably won’t remember me, but give Professor Smith my best." Each professor’s reaction was the same, "Wow, of course, I remember her. She was incredible."

Unfortunately, her intelligence was something she never talked about easily. She was embarrassed that she preferred to go to the library once a week, take out a stack of books, and finish them before the next visit (one day she actually stood in the library and said, "I just can’t find anything I haven’t read.")  With my sisters and me, she downplayed grades, and encouraged us to be more social. But her fierce knowledge of countless topics and the way she challenged us to think and have opinions showed us that it was okay for a girl to be smart and curious.

Don’t marry someone just because you think he’s cute. Find a partner who doesn’t just "look at" you, but who really "sees" you and values what you want.  If there was one mission that my mother had for her daughters it was that all three of us would find partners who not only loved us, but who saw us as people and who valued our dreams.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that she stopped the "You don’t need a boyfriend," mantra. When I met him, I knew he was the one because she’d been telling me all of those years what to look for, "He’s not threatened by you. He’s as interested in what you have to say as you are in what he has to say. He likes you as well as loves you." Sadly, my mother never found that in her own life, but as I write this (knock on wood) all three of her daughters did.

Don’t be vulnerable financially. Always be able to support yourself. Find what you love to do and finish your education before you have children. In 1976, at the age of 35, my mother was divorced with three children ages 12, 10 and 8 years old, and she’d never worked outside the home. My father always paid child support, but it wasn’t enough to survive, so she picked herself up and somehow found a way to get a master's degree at night while working part-time as a school aide.

I can still hear the sound of the typewriter as she wrote her papers at the dining room table after we’d gone to bed. I would bring her peanut butter sandwiches (the only thing I knew how to make) and she’d say, "Promise me you’ll never be in this position. Figure out what you want to do professionally, and make sure you like it enough to not hate leaving your children every day. Get your education before you have children and always be able to support yourself."

Because of that promise I made as a young girl, education and professional satisfaction did come before children. And, even though I have a wonderful, supportive husband, I can and will always be able to provide for myself.

Don’t be afraid to try something scary and new, because you never know who you might help.  Even after she died five years ago, she still managed to teach me important lessons about dreaming from her "don’t do as I did" reverse playbook.

As I cleaned out her office, I found the unfinished draft of a book proposal. For more than 25 years, my mother had been a school psychologist. Again, her commitment to and impact on the students with special needs whom she served were legendary. The book she was trying to write drew on her decades of experience and outlined how to help every child, no matter what challenges they faced, because, "each child is special." With the unfinished proposal I found an affirmation she’d written to herself. It said, "You can do this, Peg. You can do this." But she didn’t. I can’t help but think of all the teachers, parents and children who won’t benefit from her wisdom.

Over the past year and a half as I wrote my new book, I thought about my mother’s unfinished manuscript.  When the dark, frustrating moments of the writing process inevitably arose, I’d push through to the other side because, "I don't know who this book might help." 

Thank you, Mom, for showing me how to dream.  Happy Mother's Day.

How did your mother teach you to dream, and how do you hope to teach your children? The answers may surprise you. 

Check out Whitney Johnson’s new book, Dare, Dream, Do. for inspiring stories and "how to" strategies, and connect with Whitney on Twitter @johnsonwhitney and on Facebook.  

[Top image: Flickr user protoflux]     

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