It shames me to say this but: I was never in awe of my mother. When I was a child, she embarrassed me. I despaired at her lack of ambition, her loyal commitment to soulless, exploitative jobs that she was far too good for, her uncomplaining acceptance of her lot in life. We lived a life of duty and routines. There were no expectations of achievement; it was almost unthinkable for me to aspire to go to university, the first in my family to achieve this goal. My notions of what I would do with my life were so brutally segregated from hers, it was like being raised by wolves.
Obviously, my mother was shaped by the time and place she was born into – post-war England in the industrial north, all steel factories and rationing. But it wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t just the era but also personality that made us speak two different languages.
You see, if there’s one personality type that’s likely to drive the INTJ nuts, it’s the ESFJ. The feeling is probably mutual, but in a different way. I see my ESFJ mother as overly dutiful, risk averse and a bit of a pushover. She sees me as being cold, intellectual and defiant, because I question everything and will not always go along with her wishes. We clash, as you might expect. There’s also respect there, and more love than you can possibly imagine.
This story is a love letter to my mom. Who gave me so much, even if I was too immature to understand it at the time. Because looking back, it’s clear that my mother was by far the greatest influence on my life, and the person to whom I am most indebted.
#1: Give with all your heart
My mother grew up in poverty, and later lived only in modest prosperity – there was never much money to spare. Yet, she excels at giving. Birthdays and Christmas bring an abundance of presents to her children, grandchildren and friends, and also to her neighbors, the children of her neighbors and everyone else who comes near her in any way. She is generous with her time, money and resources. If you ever need something, you only have to ask and it’s yours.
My mother thinks a lot about what she can do to make someone feel safe and happy. No matter what form it takes, her giving is always delivered with affection and love. I get wrapped up in the world and its politics and its myriad problems; she puts value in all the right people.
#2: See yourself in the average person
As a practical, realistic type, my ESFJ mother holds neither a low nor a lofty view of herself. She sees herself in the average person, whereas I’m always alert to the ways in which I exceed the standards I set for myself, and the ways in which I fall short.
Somehow, my mom has found a way to be okay with feeling average, mediocre; even boring. Raising me, she was especially good at the concept of the trade-off – pointing out that I may be an average or below-average performer in sport, for instance, but I flew high academically. She did not expect me to strive for mediocrity in any area but, if mediocrity was where I landed, that was okay.
I am grateful to this lesson in self-acceptance. Accepting that you are no better or worse than anyone else makes life easier to bear.
#3: Women can do everything
My mother, the most understated of feminists, taught me that women can do everything. Including 'men's things.' There was a man in my house, but my mother was not the type to wait around for my father to put up a shelf or decorate the living room. She took care of everything, in a let’s-figure-it-out, just-get-on-with-it sort of way.
My mother has no time for ideological gender discussions and has zero interest in hierarchies of oppression and intersectionality. But more than any other person, she showed me how strong women can be.
#4: Do your duties before you go dancing
In our house, you always did the most important things first – starting with your obligations to others. Chores before play. Homework before TV. I did not enjoy bending to these rules that seemed to make my life harder than it needed to be. But they surely made me organize my life around the things I needed to do before I was allowed to do the things I wanted to do. That’s a great foundation for success.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. In my mom’s head, if you’re not doing something physical, then it’s assumed you’re doing nothing. Reading up on a topic that I was interested in was a high priority for the teenaged me, but my mom would complain that I was ‘wasting time.’ Reading books is a waste of time, but ironing laundry is character building? I’ll never share that opinion, but I understand the good place it's coming from and can laugh about our wildly different perspectives of the world.
#5: You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar
My mother is not as direct as I am, but neither does she beat around the bush. The difference between us is that my priority is getting to the truth, always. I don’t prioritize my own or anyone else’s feelings.
My mom is straightforward because she likes to get things off her chest, and make sure that everyone is aware of the problem so it can be fixed. But she never goes out of her way to start an argument and will choose language that makes people feel good about themselves rather than victimized or upset.
The lesson? People can hear almost anything if it's said to them in a gentle, kind, but bluntly truthful way.
#6: Respect your elders
When we are young, we think that we understand the whole world and that we know more than anyone else. However, there are things that can only be learned over time; things that are not in books and that cannot be discovered through experiments and theorizing. What I’m talking about here is the travel-weariness of lived experience – something my mother puts tremendous value in and which I, foolishly, don’t.
My mother taught me that looking backwards is just as important as looking forwards. Our elders have stories to tell that we cannot possibly imagine, and their experiences give us orientation, context, perspective and support. Respecting them creates a different culture of learning based on personal stories and histories that NTs like me don’t always appreciate or ponder.
#7: Friends are everything
The house I grew up in was always open to friends and neighbors, and all kinds of social acquaintances would pop in on a regular basis just to say hello. My mother loved all of these interactions and did not discriminate between the people who benefited her life and those who invaded it with neediness drama – she made connections with everyone, laughing together, crying together, and gave everyone the proper nourishment and support.
I am not blessed by the God of Popularity, and I do not make friends as easily. That is my fault, since I do not put nearly as much effort into my relationships as my mother puts into hers. But I constantly remind myself to try because, in the end, I know that it’s our heart connections that count. I learned this from my mother, and I wonder how lonely my life would be if I did not have this wonderful role model in my life.