14 Lessons My Mother Taught Me When I Wasn’t Listening

As we approach Mother’s Day, I want to share one of Sheila’s most popular blog posts.  Like many people dealing with elderly parents, Sheila has spent the last several weeks helping her mother and father as they deal with poor health and limited mobility. At this stage of their life, they need 24/7 attention. 

Sheila is now taking care of her mother, the woman who once took care of her. When we celebrate this Mother’s Day, I urge you to join me not only in celebrating moms everywhere, but also to reflect on the circle of life and the invaluable lessons mothers teach us.  Happy Mother’s Day! 



by Sheila Qualls

My mom had a harshness about her I didn’t understand as a kid.

I thought she was just mean. I vowed never to be like her.

As a young wife, I tolerated her. I thought I was smarter than she was and she couldn’t teach me anything. Because I knew it all.

Later I realized she taught me lessons I couldn’t value from my limited, immature perspective.

She taught lessons with her life. I didn’t realize I’d paid attention until I had children of my own.

She grew up poor and Black

My mom saw a lot of hard times herself. Maybe more than most.

She was the only child born to a 13 year-old single mother in the 1930’s. Depression-era Oklahoma.

She grew up poor and Black. She barely had a chance to mature herself before she began taking care of a family of her own.

She dropped out of school in the 8th grade and married a Buffalo Soldier*, who took her away from everything and everyone she ever knew.

She had to figure it out. And, she did.

By the time she was 21, she’d been married five years and had five kids. She’d eventually have three more. She cared for eight babies using cloth diapers and glass bottles.

She taught me how to be a mom

Like most moms in those days, she stayed home. She had a house full of kids and concerns about putting food on the table and paying the bills.

Because my dad was a career soldier–who saw combat in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.–she lived as a single parent much of the time.

She traveled–in the U.S. and abroad–many times with eight children in tow, following my dad to new duty stations.

She mourned the deaths of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

She marveled when men walked on the moon, delighted when she got her first colored television set, and endured through the Civil Rights Movement.

In her lifetime, she’s been colored, a Negro, Black and African American. And sometimes she was called far worse.

The mother of eight children and wife to a U.S soldier, she was still refused service at restaurants, denied access to public pools, and couldn’t use a gas station restroom in the Jim Crow South.

Still she lived with dignity.

She acted thrilled every Mother’s Day, Christmas or birthday when we gave her the latest kitchen gadget–a toaster or a can opener– or. . .  nothing at all.

She was at every basketball game, every awards ceremony, Girl Scout ceremony, and parents’ night. She listened to me read. She listened to me count. She laughed at my jokes. (She still does.) Even when I didn’t, she believed in me.

Growing up, I wasn’t mature enough to understand her life or appreciate her sacrifices.

I didn’t appreciate her even though I cried in her arms after a breakup with my boyfriend in high school.

I cried in her arms in the early years in my marriage. It never occurred to me she didn’t have any arms to comfort her in the early years of her marriage.

I didn’t appreciate her as I cried in her arms when I felt like one of my own children had broken my heart.

It had never occurred to me I’d probably broken her heart, too.

Her feelings never occurred to me at all.

She taught me to value relationships

She introduced me to Jesus. She taught me to value relationships with my brothers and sisters, relationships she never had.

I don’t know how she did it all.

When I was 15, I was in high school, not pregnant and not married.

At 21, I was in college, not married and raising five kids.

I’ve never worried about putting food on the table or struggled to pay my bills.

I’ve never been denied access to pools or restaurants.

It never occurred to me that many of the things I experienced during those years, she was experiencing with me for the first time: A wedding, high school and college graduations.

Mom at 80.

When I look at her now-the corners of her mouth sagging with age–I remember the woman who got me up in the mornings. Took me shopping for school clothes, taught me the importance of being a lady, and tried to make every Christmas and birthday special.

My selfish perspective has changed through the lens of maturity. Now I see a mother’s heart–her heart– whose compassion was sometimes stifled by fear.

I treasure the lessons she taught me. They’re lessons for life.

Lessons I learned when I wasn’t paying attention

  1. Have faith in God.
  2. Marriage is forever.
  3. Never let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do because of who you are.
  4. Don’t follow the crowd.
  5. Respect authority.
  6. Be a lady.
  7. Don’t be afraid to say no.
  8. Never side with your children against your husband.
  9. It’s okay to sleep in sometimes.
  10. Spanking is necessary.
  11. Be an advocate for your children.
  12. Always show up for your kids.
  13. Laugh out loud.
  14. Tell the truth.

I pray I instilled similar values in my own children. I pray I taught them lessons by the way I’ve lived my life.

My mom, like many moms, moved her desires to the back burner.

She might’ve wanted something different out of life. But she accepted what she got and made it her dream.

*Buffalo Soldiers were all Black units in the U.S. Army. They helped settle much of the American West until President Truman desegregated the Army in 1948.

Sheila Qualls is a writer and speaker on the subject of marriage. She blogs as The Not So Excellent Wife, at Patheos.com. In 34 years of marriage she’s raised five children and survived numerous corporate moves. Sheila is a former civilian journalist and editor for the U.S. Army’s award-winning newspaper, The Cannoneer. Sheila holds a B.S. in Journalism and English and an M.A. in Communication. She and her husband Kendall live in Medina, Minnesota with their children and Black Lab, Largo.