Good “Adwice”

Mother and Daughter Talking at the Table

My mother pronounces advice “adwice.” I don’t know why or when the V turned into a W. Maybe the change softened it, made it less directive, more of a gentle suggestion. But either way it is guidance, a prod toward a certain way of doing things.

One of her favorite pieces of advice is that “It is better to be the dumper than the dumpee.” When my friends came to spend the night in middle and high school she would ask us how our relationships were going (lousy, because we were in middle and high school), and our Friday night slumber parties turned into break-up parties where we spent the night on my Swatch Phone, dumping our boyfriends.

For most of my life, I have followed her “adwice”: I pursued a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. I dated suit-wearing, level-headed men who worked 9-5. I got a dog at age 22, as she had. I liked my mother’s life; I liked its shape and feel. And I modeled many of my choices on hers.

But things got tricky in my late twenties when my choices began to look markedly different from hers.

When my husband and I were about to get married, we decided against wedding gifts. We had too many kitchen supplies already and too little room in our tiny 800 square foot house. But then my wonderful, bossy mother entered the picture, puncturing our giftless resolve with her “good adwice!” and reminding me to be more opinionated, and mentioning objects that I had once admired (a dragonfly-patterned tea set).

That afternoon, I picked a terrific fight with my soon-to-be-husband over wedding presents, declaring, “I want to register for a tea set!”

“But we have three already,” he protested. “And didn’t we already decide against gifts?”

I argued…and pushed…and I got my way. But it was a hollow victory. I had plenty of teapots and, realistically, where would I fit the new set? And would I ever use it with my husband? In the end, I apologized to him, and wrote a long email to my mom.

She wrote back:

Dearest E,

This wonderful, thoughtful, brilliant email should be required reading for modern couples. I am going to print it out, keep it with me at all times, and remind myself that part of being young all of one’s life is being flexible and open to new ways of doing old things. I am honored to be learning from you, as I have from the moment you made me a mom.

Much, much love,

I went on to marry this man who is perfect for me but who my mother probably would not have set me up with. We moved to Boise (against good “adwice”), and I quit the secure job for which all my degrees prepared me (against good “adwice”)—and instead I decided to write full-time and stay at home with my baby-on-the-way.

Through all my turns against advice, I ended up at the place where my mother always wished I would be. My mother (with her own PhD and law degree) had ADORED being a stay-at-home mom with four kids. It had given meaning to her life. Suddenly I was in her camp again; our lives looked alike.

My pregnancy and decision to be at home spun my mother into a frenzy of advice unlike anything I had ever seen. “Adwice” on food! Feeding a baby! Balancing my life! My checkbook! My marriage!

And finally, I rose up and cut my mother off. I didn’t want to turn off the faucet of advice completely, but I wanted to staunch its heavy flow. The more confidence I gained in my own way of doing things, the more her “good adwice” felt like a judgment on my life.

So I bought her a journal: a pretty book with bright yellow tulips on the cover.

“Here is the good ‘adwice’ book,” I told her. “I’m not ready to hear all of your advice right now, and it is stressing me out much more than it is helping. But I value your wisdom and want to hear it. So, when you have advice you want to give, write it here, and I’ll ask to read the book when I’m feeling ready.”

And to her great credit, she used it. And she still does. When I was last visiting my parents’ home, I threw away some old school papers that I know my mother (who loves abundance) would have kept. Her eyes bugged out, and I knew exactly what she wanted to say: “Don’t throw away your writing!!!” But instead, she raced out of the room, and I could hear her scribbling in the book.

Now, as a new mother, I sometimes ask my mother for advice. She was tentative at first. “It’s your life,” she says. “I don’t want to advise…” But I always tell her the same thing: “It is just free advice. It’s worth what I pay for. I don’t have to take it.”

Stranger still, occasionally she asks me for advice. Retirement is a crossroads, not unlike being a new parent or chasing a new job. Both are times to look up from the day-to-day life and wonder, “Now what?”

So when she asks, I make suggestions. One of which is to consider moving to Boise, near me. She says she’ll think about it. She is happy with her own life as it is and where it is. She listens patiently to my “adwice,” but she does not always take it.

— Elisabeth Sharp McKetta

[photo by Ditte Isager for Real Simple]