Life advice from one of literature’s greatest mothers

No matter how old we get, we’re never too old for a mother’s advice. Whether it comes from our own mother or grandmother, or from another mother-like figure, the wisdom of women who love and nurture us is a precious gift. And though we may not always want to admit it, there’s no denying that there’s a lot of truth to the saying “Mother knows best.”

Along with learning from the women in our own lives, we can also learn something from great mothers in literature. In that category, few can match Mrs. March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Marmee, as she is known to her four daughters, is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the most beautiful examples of motherhood literature has to offer. She guides and corrects with a firm but loving hand, and she allows her girls to learn from their mistakes. She encourages and comforts when emotions overflow, and she raises her girls to love one another deeply. Although times are hard, with a husband at war and little money to the family’s name, she fills her home with joy and generously gives to those in need.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are three pieces of advice from Marmee that we would all do well to take to heart.

“Never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”

Jo, the second-oldest of the March girls, has a strong temper. In one instance, her anger almost costs her younger sister Amy her life. After a quarrel, Jo refuses to forgive Amy. When Amy follows her to the river to go ice skating, Jo gives in to her festering anger and ignores her sister—including not warning her about the thin ice in the middle of the river. Amy falls through the ice, and though she’s rescued in time, Jo faces the harsh reality of what could have happened because she put her own feelings before her sister’s safety. She’s surprised to learn that her dear mother, who seems the picture of perfect patience, has also struggled with her temper.

“Yes, I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips, and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked.”

Marmee tells Jo that conquering her own temper has been a lifelong struggle. In her youth, she had help from her own mother, and then later, from her husband. But perhaps the biggest help came from wanting to be an example to her girls.

“Oh, Mother, if I’m ever half as good as you, I shall be satisfied,” cried Jo, much touched.

“I hope you will be a great deal better, dear, but you must keep watch over your ‘bosom enemy,’ as father calls it, or it may sadden, if not spoil your life. You have had a warning. Remember it, and try with heart and soul to master this quick temper, before it brings you greater sorrow and regret than you have known today.”

On a practical level, Marmee has a good idea about how to deal with anger: step away for a moment. Whether we’re dealing with a difficult co-worker or facing a tense moment with a spouse, stepping away can make all the difference between diffusing a situation and causing it to escalate.

In a broader way, Marmee’s advice applies to any vice that we find to be our “bosom enemy.” If we allow our character flaws and bad habits to rule us, we’ll have to face the negative consequences. But through hard work, we can lessen their impact on our lives and relationships. It’s also worth noting that, while we are responsible for our faults, we don’t have to conquer them alone. In Marmee’s case, her husband held her accountable, and her children gave her new motivation.

“Poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover.”

From the very beginning of the book, the March sisters lament their lack of money and material goods, only to learn time and again that money cannot buy joy, and that it’s more important to be rich in love than to be rich in possessions. One of many lessons on this subject comes after Meg, the eldest, hears some gossip about her family. She overhears a woman falsely claiming that Mrs. March wants one of her girls to marry Laurie, the neighbor boy, because of his wealth. Upset by this idle chatter, Meg brings it up with Marmee. Marmee responds with wise words about money and marriage.

“I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. . . . My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world—marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing—and when used well, a noble thing—but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

As with much of Marmee’s advice, there are two lessons at play here. First, there is a message about not buying into other people’s assumptions and not letting gossip rattle us. There’s dignity to be found in not participating.

On a deeper level, her words are a good reminder of what is truly important when it comes to marriage and family life. She’s not saying that one needs to choose either a loving home or a wealthy home; she wisely points out that money is “needful” and can also be used in a “noble” way. Rather, she’s urging her girls to have perspective—not to get so caught up in lofty plans for affluence, nor in other people’s ideas about possessions, that they lose sight of what’s really important. Although social media has given us new ways to compare ourselves to others, reading about the March girls is a reminder that, really, comparison is a timeless struggle. We can compare ourselves to our friends and lament that our vacations aren’t as grand, our cars aren’t as new, or our homes aren’t as big. Or, we can focus on what we do have and strive to fill our homes with love, joy, gratitude, and our own simple, sweet memories.

“All play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.”

When June arrives, the girls are eager to drop their duties for the summer and take up a life of leisure. Rather than forcing the girls to continue with their usual tasks, Marmee agrees to a week-long experiment in which they take a break from all their responsibilities. She and the housekeeper pick up the girls’ dropped tasks for most of the week, but the experiment culminates with a day in which they, too, forego the usual household duties to show the girls that neglecting one’s work isn’t as glamorous as it might seem. As Marmee expected, the girls were irritable that week, and by the end of the last disastrous day, they picked up on the fact that their mother was allowing them to learn a lesson.

“Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone. It keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion . . . I am quite satisfied with the experiment, and fancy that we shall not have to repeat it, only don’t go to the other extreme and delve like slaves. Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.”

For the March girls, this was a lesson on hard work. Work is not only necessary but empowering. There’s a healthy sense of pride and accomplishment that come from a job well done, whether we’re completing a paper for our studies, doing a project for a client, or caring for our homes. That work also makes leisure even more rewarding.

But Marmee is wise to point out that her girls needn’t work themselves to the ground—and that’s a lesson modern women need to hear. In a culture that glorifies busyness, and in a time when burnout is a frequent topic of discussion, Marmee’s words provide the key to that elusive balance we all crave. Work isn’t the only thing that deserves “regular hours”—so does leisure, which is an important part of self-care. “Make each day both useful and pleasant” ought to be emblazoned on a coffee mug, as the saying would provide a good dose of perspective to reflect on at the start of each day. 

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