05/10/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Number One Lesson My Mother Taught Me

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While my mother was alive, I always felt very close to her. Throughout my childhood, she was a constant, unfailing source of protection and solace. I was that little girl who clung to her mother's skirts (except with my mom, it was more likely to be culottes). Far before I knew what it meant to be a mother, I knew that I would want to be a mother like her: present, calming and with an unlimited of supply of love.

I was recently asked what one thing I would thank my mom for if I could only choose one. The answer came to me immediately: I would thank her for encouraging me to be independent. My mother rarely bestowed advice on me, at least not directly. Both of my parents were pretty laissez-faire in their parenting style. I never had a bedtime, was never forced to be a member of the Clean Plate Club, and generally had a license to play with whoever I wanted. The unbreakable rules were few: respect your elders, don't swear (too much), and no cats. We ate dinner together sometimes but not regularly, and with increasing rarity as my sister and I got older. Life lessons were usually acquired along the way, rarely doled out with the express purpose of imparting wisdom. But there was at least one thing that my mom wanted me to know: Don't grow up to be dependent on me.

Maybe she remembered how shy I was as a young girl. Maybe she sensed that she wouldn't be around as long as she wanted. Regardless, it stuck. It spoke to my burgeoning independent spirit anyway, so it was a lesson I was eager to accept. She worked with a woman who had a very dependent adult daughter and saw how limiting that was, and wanted none of that for me or my sister. To my mother's credit, both my sister and I followed through and moved away as soon as we graduated. For my sister, it was marriage, for me, college. Perhaps, to my mother's chagrin, we never checked in enough, taking her advice a little too far. (Yes, in retrospect I wish I would've called more.)

I remember a story that my mother used to tell about me to whoever would listen. It involved one of the elderly nuns at our church. While I was trying to memorize all the prayers I needed to know for Catechism class, my mother told me that if I wanted to talk to God, all I really had to do was just talk to Him. I didn't need special words. When I relayed this to Sister Brigitte, she begged to differ. Neither my mother nor I relented, however. Needless to say, I was never confirmed.

In any case, I am eternally grateful for that lesson of independence. Of course, there are a number of things I should thank my mother for, but in keeping with the spirit of the question, this is my number one. Because of this, I have created an identity and a life that is very much my own, one that I can take full credit -- and responsibility -- for. One that I feel she would be proud of. And because of the other things she gave me -- compassion, a sense of humor and humility -- I have learned to not exert my independence at the expense of forming close and intimate relationships. I cherish my friendships deeply and try to be as present and available as possible. Not always easy when you're also trying to develop your career, but always a worthy struggle. Because of my mother it is very important to me that I achieve my own success, but also because of her, I feel a strong desire to cultivate my personal relationships just as much as my professional. As a social justice advocate, my work is very much an extension of who I am, and while this was not my mother's path, I have to believe that she would be proud of me for standing up for my beliefs, and pursuing what is important to me.

On the rare occasions when I was able to see my mother as someone other than my mother, as a person all her own, I remember how much everyone liked her. She was nice, helpful, and fun. She never went to college, genuinely liked being a stay-at-home mom (for the time that our finances allowed that luxury), and wasn't political at all. I have not emulated her choices in that regard, but I do try to emulate her personality. It wasn't just me who liked being around my mom. It was everyone. In this regard, I am constantly trying to be like her, to be that person of warmth.

My mother died 12 years ago, when I was 23, and I still miss her, every day. But this lesson of independence, more than any other, has given me the direction I needed to navigate my adulthood without her. In many ways, who I am today comes from her advice given so many years ago. This is what I will celebrate on Mother's Day.