Mentors are a critical element to many women’s professional development.
Oprah Winfrey once said they are “someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” Her mentor, Maya Angelou, credits them with caring. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mentors as “a trusted counselor or guide.” InHerSight recently wrote on mentorship, citing a study from Deloitte which said 75 percent of executives claim mentorship had a major impact on their careers.
Often professionals seek out another who came before them in their field as a mentor or, at the least, a distant role model. While it’s important to learn from those in your field, there is a shared mentor many women have that often goes unnoticed — our mothers.
Mothers are often our first teachers. Even infants know their mothers will provide them with their most basic needs. As we get older, that relationship shifts from one of survival to one of learning to thrive, with our mothers as guides in that journey.
In part one of a series on motherhood and work, Psychology Today explores how mothers tend to be our first mentors. “Women are often encouraged to find feminist mentors in our workplaces or professional organizations,” Lauren Mizock writes. “Yet many of us find our first feminist mentors in our mothers; one reason being that we learn important feminist lessons by watching our mothers navigate professional and family life.”
While Mizock focuses on mothers as mentors in feminism, the work doesn’t stop there. That mentorship stretches to many aspects of our lives, and often helps build a firm foundation of professional skills that set us up for success at work.
The problem is, we don’t always see our mothers this way.
Growing up, my mother gave me an incredible amount of encouragement in a subtle way, which I only realized later in life. One of the traits I bring to my work that I’m most proud of is my ability to speak to anyone. As a journalist, it’s crucial for me to make a conversation comfortable when I’m interviewing someone. As a web professional, I need to be understanding when a client is feeling confused or frustrated. I’m constantly adjusting my tone to fit a person or situation.
When I was a child, my mother would joke that I could talk to a wall for hours and not get bored. While poking fun, she still managed to encourage what she knew would be an important skill as I got older. She constantly pushed me to speak up for myself with all people.
I was always an outspoken kid, but even the wildest children often won’t approach new people on their own, preferring their mother act as liaison. My mother couldn’t be bothered. “Go talk to them yourself,” my mother would instruct. If the Pope had been in the room and 7-year-old me wanted to say hi, my mom would have demanded I march over myself and shake his hand.
She wasn’t lazy or disinterested. She was training me. She was teaching me how to present myself confidently in the real world. She was showing me, at such a young age, that I am my own person with my own ideas, and only I can speak up for myself. Our weekly check-ins happened at a dinner table, rather than a desk. Our benchmarks were tracked by stickers, rather than quarterly reviews. I never realized that what I saw as a personality trait would become a marketable skill in the workplace.
Because my mother encouraged my autonomy, I am a confident communicator. As a person, I love that part of who I am. As a professional, I love that this skill makes my work so much more enjoyable.
Mentorship in a professional capacity is something we tend to think about when we’ve decided on a career path, but that’s absolutely not when mentorship first begins in our lives. It’s important to realize that — even for those who may not have a positive mother figure in their life — mentorship starts young.
We’re mentored by teachers, religious figures, our friend’s parents, our babysitters, and so many more individuals. So many of our soft skills are learned at a young age, and are carried with us into the professional world.
For those of us who have had a mother help raise us, that mentorship can be one of the most critical relationships in your life. After all, our professional mentors may help guide us through our chosen careers, but someone had to draw up the map and help us find that path in the first place.
By Alyssa Huntley