Brand building through storytelling

Mothers and mentors

A woman in her 20s came to see me recently, full of bold plans for the business she’d just launched. I gave her some names to call; her verve gave me something to smile about. Then she asked if I had a daughter. “You’d be a good mentor,” she added.

I told her part of the truth: that I have a son about her age, but never got around to having the daughter I once dreamed of. The other part isn’t so simple. For a heart-stopping second, I marveled at this young woman as if she were my dream daughter come to life. I wondered enviously whether my guest was looking for a mentor because a spoilsport mother wasn’t cheering her on Then it struck me that if I were her mother, I might not be cheering either. I’d be too afraid for her, too eager to protect her from her own mistakes. Like a good many mothers who cherish their daughters, I’d want to hold on when I should be letting go.

A girl has one irreplaceable mother who conveys her first lessons in womanhood. Whether she embraces or rejects those lessons, chances are she’ll yearn all her life for the tidal force of her mother’s love and the comfort of her mother’s approval. But with luck she’ll find mentors who bring a different gift: the ability to encourage her for the woman she really is, not the one her mother thought she should be. While men can and do fill this role, there’s something particularly bracing about the support of an older woman friend who never worried about your grade 5 report card or grounded you for missing curfew.

Fredelle Green KingdomMy own mother had a gift for mentoring younger women. Over homemade shortbreads and peppermint tea (always served in her favourite antique pewter pot), she would listen as they exulted in new babies or weighed the pros and cons of divorce. When she thought they were heading for a costly mistake, she’d tell a story about her own youthful blunders and let them draw their own conclusions. During her final illness, these women flew to her bedside and kept the pewter pot full. One of them told me, “I never felt accepted by anyone the way I did by your mother.”

My mother’s love for her two daughter’s had a sharper edge. No surprise there: a mother is expected to chastise and challenge.

With a girl, this task can be complicated by the mother’s expectations of passionate closeness. “I wanted you to be like me,” my mother said late in life. “I couldn’t have entertained such a notion with a boy.”

A mentor has a more modest goal: to light someone’s way by sharing her life experience. Yet her impact can endure for a lifetime. Agnes de Mille, the distinguished choreographer, was in her 80s when she published a powerfully personal biography of the the mentor she had met around age 24–dance genius Martha Graham. In Martha, she recalled both Graham’s volcanic rages and her nurturing side. “She came to all my shows and held my hand through the openings; she talked to me about the work afterwards with a perceiving grace.”

When I was a young editor at Miss Chatelaine (later Flare), I too found a mentor. My boss, Keitha McLean, taught me as much about living as she did about putting out a magazine. Our meetings often turned into meditations on the importance of a sense of perspective. If she caught me obsessing over a trifle, she would chide me for “overthinking.” Fearlessly frank, she had struggled with alcoholism and angst, yet she radiated faith in the redemptive power of what she called “living like a grownup.” Although she had no children, she inspired countless young people.

Years after Keitha’s death, I think of her whenever I connect with a younger woman. Making time for them is part of living like a grownup. Better yet, it’s an art my mother taught me.

First published in Chatelaine, November 1997.  

Click here and here to learn more about Keitha McLean, who deserves to be better known. 

Posted by Rona

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