05/08/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What My Mom Taught Me About Being a Mom

Amy Markoff Johnson

In the years since my oldest child was born, I've encountered plenty of experts ready to share their thoughts on parenting: doctors, teachers, other parents and of course, the ever-helpful random passersby. The advice I've received (solicited and un-solicited) has ranged from invaluable to ridiculous, but over time, I've come to realize that the most important things I needed to know about being a mom, I learned from watching my own mom:

1) Tell your kids you love them. A lot. And often. Even if they'll never really understand how much.

When I was a child, my mom would hold my hand as we crossed the street and squeeze it three times. As she squeezed, she'd say, "I. Love. You." One, two, three. I love you. Eventually, she stopped saying the words and would just squeeze my hand. One, two, three. I love you. I carried those squeezes with me and passed them on to my husband and children. It was a sweet, shared secret with other people I cared about, a way to say "I love you" in a voice softer than a whisper.

When I got older and my mom sent me off into the wide world of elementary school, she couldn't squeeze my hand during the day, but she would send little notes written on paper napkins packed in my lunch. Sometimes they would contain wishes for a good day, but always they contained the words "I love you," along with my mother's signature smiley face: two dots and a crescent smile wrapped inside a round face with a little curl of cartoon hair on top.

The first time I held each of my children, the emotion was overwhelming; all the love I had for my husband, my family and my friends felt like a glimmer of moonlight on water compared to this great, roaring sun that was my child. But what amazed me most wasn't discovering I had such love inside me, it was realizing that this must be how my own parents loved me. For all the ways in which my mom showed me she loved me over the years, I just never knew.

But I keep squeezing their hands and writing "I love you" on their napkins anyway, because someday, they might.

2) Be the person you want to see reflected in your children.

My mom is not known for her foreign language skills. Perhaps that's just not how her mind works, or perhaps it's a lack of exposure; after all, she grew up in the Midwest over half a century ago, hemmed inland in a time of segregation, with people who looked and spoke like she did. Either way, she's been known to spend decades consistently mispronouncing words that are new to her. To this day, unless she slowly sounds out each syllable, "tortilla" still rolls off her tongue as "tor-till-ee-ah." And my brother and I teasingly laugh and roll our eyes each time.

Yet, she's also worked with international students for decades, as a teacher, a student advisor and a coordinator for UNICEF. China. Ethiopia. Japan. Russia. Saudi Arabia. Vietnam. Burkina Faso. Unlikely ambassador though she may be, her drawers and her hard drive overflow with hundreds of photos of people of all ages and backgrounds beaming out around her, like so many planets reflecting the light of the sun.

She has a wonderful ability to make people feel at home, even when they are far from home. And part of that lies precisely in her invariable missteps. Time after time, she'll gamely try to twist her tongue around the little niceties of other languages -- hello, thank you, please, goodbye -- even if it's all more likely to end in laughter than mastery of a new word. In every action, she shows that she recognizes how hard communication can be and how important it is to keep reaching out to one another anyway.

As I've gotten older, I've seen the ways in which I've come to mirror my mom, for better or worse. Who she is, and what I learned as I watched her, shaped me more than how she handled the minutiae we too often think of as "parenting": the chores and meals and bedtimes and schoolwork. As I see myself reflecting my mom's words and actions, I see my children reflecting mine. And I know that if I hope to show them the value of kindness, open mindedness, compassion, exercise or eating right, I need to model those things myself. Even if (maybe especially if) I'm not good at them. Because in continuing to try, like my mom, I can show them that we can always change, always learn, always keep trying to make our world and ourselves a little bit better.

3) Let go.

I'm not the same person my mother is. Give my mom five minutes in the grocery store and, with her warm smile and sympathetic ear, she'll come out with a gallon of milk and the life story of the cashier. But chatting with strangers leaves me as tongue tied as my mom trying to say "tortilla." I have a different mind and body, different strengths and weaknesses. I live in a different time and place. And I have other influences in my life: my father, my brother, my friends, my peers, my teachers, my mentors, the media.

As much as I may want certain things for my children, they are their own people, with their own outlook and their own unique set of influences, of which I'm just one part. I can tell them I love them every day, and they may never know it. I may think I am demonstrating one value, when they see something quite different. Or times may change, and the way I've lived may not be what they need in their brave, new world. All I can do is what my mother taught me: keep loving them, keep trying and let them go off into it.