When my daughter Charlie turned 9, I started making notes in the back of an old Moleskine notebook that I thought I’d give her when she left for college. I wanted to do a better job than my own mother had done preparing her for adult life. There were things I wished my mother had warned me about. I also thought, by writing, that I might come up with a more deliberate approach to the confounding job of mothering. I had an idea of turning my notes into a book, and called it Navigating Life. A few years ago I typed up the manuscript and gave it to Charlie on the day she settled in to her dorm room.
Originally it was as an act of desperation, in response to a series of dramas that visited our family: addiction, illness, depression, job loss and death. It was a rearguard action, an attempt to sort out on paper how to cope with life’s more extreme circumstances.
As I reached my mid-30s, I had a nagging feeling that as a mother I could somehow do better. Growing up with an alcoholic father and a chronically depressed mother meant that I was going to have to try harder to build a sane life. I didn’t want to replicate my own experience. I didn’t want my three children to, either.
Could I record my own reckoning with life in such a way as to guide my own children? Could I write about how to build and design a life while living it, revealing myself to them and the larger truths that lurk beneath the surface of family routines? Might the discipline of translating life into words make me live it better?
In the end, I came up with a list of 10 things I wish my mother had told me:
· Navigate Yourself: What is your intention? Try to think about what you think, do and say.
· Navigate Others: Your behavior matters more than your words.
· Navigate Life: Pay attention and be kind.
· Navigate Love: First and foremost is respect, then trust, then love.
· Navigate Children: Sometimes a loving indifference is the best response.
· Navigate Contradiction: Tolerate and embrace other people’s differences.
· Navigate Fear: Be willing to know your own fears and talk to your night demons.
· Navigate Money: Understand how it motivates you; then learn how to use your calculator.
· Navigate Regret: It’s never too late: for love, for forgiveness, for a new way of seeing.
· Navigate Endings: Don’t save your best for tomorrow.
This summer, on a rare family holiday, I have my three children to myself. My mother died last year, and I decided to go back to the source and ask Charlie and her siblings directly what they wished I had told them about life. (The two girls, Charlie, 24 and Bella, 22, were quick to the question; their brother, Brendan, 20, was eating lunch and not to be disturbed.)
From Bella: “Work is like high school with a pay check.”
Charlie, over the din of the restaurant: “Make your own lunch.”
“Make your own luck“ is what she actually said. (It was really loud). What she tried to explain as we meandered through our meal was that she hoped to be more intentional about seizing opportunities, recognizing moments of serendipity to intentionally build her life and her career. She has watched me come to this conclusion much later in life and wants to do it earlier for herself.
I nod and hold my breath; she is so close to getting it right. Now it’s up to her.
Margaux Bergen is the author of Navigating Life.