From Abigail Adams to Maya Angelou, History’s Finest Letters of Motherly Advice
By Maria Popova
Last year, we celebrated Father’s Day with an omnibus of history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Jackson Pollock, and Neil Armstrong. Later adding to them was more timeless epistolary advice from notable dads like Ted Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Dickens.
There’s no need to wait until Mother’s Day to enjoy a similarly spirited selection of history’s finest motherly advice, spanning nearly half a millennium of poignant and prescient counsel from notable moms.
From Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library), which also gave us the author’s surprising report card, comes this remarkable 1969 missive she penned aboard an airplane for her daughter Linda to revisit later in life:
I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.
1st I love you.
2. You never let me down.
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 with a dead mother who I needed still. . . .
This is my message to the 40 year old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it — wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I’ve had a good life — I wrote unhappy — but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda — Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you 40 year old, Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are!—Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart — I’m in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her — or she me! Silly Anne! So there!
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.
Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.
Clare Boothe Luce was blond, athletic, and good-looking in an age when those attributes came with a set of expectations quite different from who she was. Ambitious and feisty, she emerged as a trailblazing media maven and went on to become the managing editor of Vanity Fair, a celebrated playwright, and a formidable congresswoman. In 1944, she became the first woman ever to deliver the keynote address at a national political convention. Her 1953 appointment as Ambassador to Italy made her the first female American ambassador to major post abroad. On November 24, 1942, Luce penned a letter to her 18-year-old daughter Ann, a sophomore at Stanford, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us Sherwood Anderson’s timelessly poetic advice on the creative life. Amidst counsel on Ann’s first romantic relationship, Luce offers the following advice:
Don’t worry about your studies. When you want to do them well you will do them superbly but for the moment the main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world because “these are the good old days” now.
America’s first woman poet, Anne Bradstreet, was also the first American in history to have a book of poetry published when her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, printed a selection of her poems in 1650 against her will. The mother of eight children, her poems had been largely a private treat for her family and a great personal joy. In March of 1664, Bradstreet sent her second son, Simon, the following selection of “Meditations” on life, of which she’d go on to produce another seventy-three besides the four included here. The letter, featured in the 1897 tome The Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (public library), was found after Bradstreet’s death in 1672 at her home in Massachusetts.
For my deare Sonne Simon Bradstreet.
PARENTS perpetuate their lives in their posterity, and their maners in their imitation. Children do natureally rather follow the failings then the vertues of their predecessors, but I am perswaded better things of you. You once desired me to leave something for you in writeing that you might look upon when you should see me no more. I could think of nothing more fit for you, nor of more ease to my self, then these short meditations following. Such as they are I bequeath to you: small legacys are accepted by true friends, much more by duty full children. I have avoyded incroaching upon others conceptions, because I would leave you nothing but myne owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde, yet I persume they will be better prif’d by you for the Authors sake. The Lord bless you with grace heer, and crown you with glory heerafter, that I may meet you with rejoycing at that great day of appearing, which is the continuall prayer, of your affectionate mother,
Meditations Divine and Morall.
THERE is no object that we see; no action that we doe; no good that we inioy; no evil that we feele, or fear, but we may make some spirituall advantage of all: and he that makes such improvment is wise, as well as pious.
MANY can speak well, but few can do well. We are better scholars in the Theory then the practique part, but he is a true Christian that is a proficient in both.
YOUTH is the time of getting, middle age of improving, and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age. He that hath nothing to seed on but vanity and lyes must needs lye down in the Bed of sorrow.
A SHIP that beares much saile, and little or no ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering.
In January of 1780, amidst America’s War of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her twelve-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, urging him to follow his father, future American president John Adams, across the Atlantic to France in pursuit of a fine education. The letter, found in Noble Deeds of American Women: With Biographical Sketches of Some of the More Prominent (public domain), examines the foundation of character — a topic particularly fitting for the boy’s formative age, given it would be another four years until Adams would see her son again.
My dear Son
Some Author that I have met with compares a judicious traveler, to a river that increases its stream the farther it flows from its source, or to certain springs which running through rich veins of minerals improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you my son that as you are favourd with superiour advantages under the instructive Eye of a tender parent, that your improvements should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you, but attention, diligence and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.
These are times in which a Genious would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orater, if he had not been roused, kindled and enflamed by the Tyranny of Catiline, Millo, Verres and Mark Anthony. The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.
The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude, and every Manly Virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do Honor to your Country, and render your parents supreemly happy, particuliarly your ever affectionate Mother,
In another letter found in Posterity and dated December 1, 1872 — nearly half a century before women were legally allowed to vote in America and two centuries before the letters of the second wave of feminism — social justice pioneer and women’s rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton gives her twenty-year-old daughter Margaret, at the time a student at Vassar, essential advice on independence as the root of happiness:
I am so glad, dearest, to know that you are happy. Now, improve every hour and every opportunity, and fit yourself for a good teacher or professor, so that you can have money of your own and not be obliged to depend on any man for every breath you draw. The helpless dependence of women generally makes them the narrow, discontented beings so many are.
Pair these timeless words with the letters of the women who ushered in the second wave of modern feminism, raising a generation of sons and daughters with an eye on true equality.
Published May 10, 2013