The video and letter were intense (just like everything Jocko does, the dude never fails to be totally switched on) but I also thought they were a brilliant, very Jocko thing to do. Immediately, I wanted the same experience for my son, and so I decided to shamelessly plagiarize Willink’s methods.
What follows is a letter I wrote to my ten year old son, who is now that that age where everything his parents say elicits and eye-roll. This is most especially true in the case of his mother, who spends the most amount of time with him while I’m out at work.
I gave this to my kid and told him, “This is the most important thing I’ll ever write and it may be the most important thing you’ll ever read.”
He began to read it, and then locked himself out in the garage to finish it because he didn’t want anyone to see him reading it. When he was done, he came back into the house, hugged his mother, told her he loved her, and said he was sorry for everything he may have done.
If you’re a parent, I recommend you do something like this. This is a gift you can give to your child that allows them to see his or her mother or father from a perspective that would have been impossible otherwise. It is very powerful medicine.
Now that Mother’s Day is over, I thought I’d take some time to write a few things down and tell you who your mother is. I didn’t want this to be something I gave you on a special day; sharing stories like this should never need a special occasion. A lot of what I’m going to write here is stuff I’ve already told you before but I wanted to write it down here. I want you to be able to come back and pick this letter up and read it and think about it when you need to.
There are things I need to tell you about Mom because she either won’t be able to tell you herself (because it wouldn’t occur to her to do so) or because she doesn’t have the words. It’s hard for her to express herself sometimes, as I’m sure you know. A lot of the fights you two get into are based on the fact that you both have a hard time explaining how you feel much of the time. You take after your mother in many ways. There are a lot of things that you got from me too but inside, in your head, there are many parts of your brain that work just like hers. The way you read and understand words, the issues you have with writing, the fact that you get angry and frustrated when trying to talk sometimes, and the fact that you sometimes just want to give up on being heard because you can’t make people understand the way you want them to…all of these things are from your mother.
Some of the best parts of you (my favorite parts) are also from your mother.
As you know, I met your mom when I was 18 years old (she was 17). I was just out of high school but she had a couple of years to go before she would graduate. We met at a fair that was put on by the local church (I think we’ve had you there before for a Christmas Mass or something, but don’t bet on it – I’m not the most religious guy and my memory for that kind of stuff isn’t that good).
Before I met Mom, I’d had a lot of other girlfriends. Some of them I cared for a lot, some of them not so much. Some of them, I wish I’d treated better. When I ran into Mom for the first real time (I’d seen her before at school but never really went after her), I was really just out looking for a new girlfriend. I didn’t want anyone special and wasn’t looking for anyone to marry. Just looking for a new girl.
When I saw her at the fair, your mother was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She was there with a few of her friends and to this day, I still can’t remember exactly which ones were there with her or what they looked like on that evening. But I remember her and what she looked like very well. I can see only your mother in my memory. I wanted to meet her badly.
So I talked to one of my friends who happened to have her phone number and gave her a call out of nowhere. When I called her, I acted very confident and spoke as though I was in complete control…the truth is that I was incredibly nervous. It’s hard to make a phone call like that when you don’t know what the person on the other end is going to say. She could have said anything. She could have told me I was a weirdo and to never call her again. These things would have been really hard to hear and I was afraid she would say them. In the end, I forced myself to call her anyway because I knew that there was also a chance that she would like me and I didn’t want to miss out on that possibility.
There is a world of possibility that exists before you pick up the phone and dial a number. Anything can happen. It takes courage to make the call. One day, you’re going to be in that same position. I really hope that you’re strong enough to make the phone call, no matter what answer you get.
I did not have to know Mom for very long before I knew I wanted to marry her. We were still just kids when I’d made that decision – I wasn’t even going to a real college yet, just some junior college where I was killing time trying to decide what I was really going to do with myself for the rest of my life. I couldn’t have been much more than 19 the first time I asked, and she said yes.
We made it official years later at her parents’ house. We were both a little older but still very young. I was either just out of college with my first degree or maybe finishing up; I don’t remember exactly when it was anymore. The date doesn’t actually matter to me. This was on a Christmas Eve; I gave her your Nana’s ring and asked her to marry me in front of her whole family. She said yes again, but I knew she would. This second time I asked her wasn’t really even a big deal for me or even her, probably. We both knew we were going to get married. It’s just that doing it in front of her family made it serious. It made it real.
The date that matters to me, the night that I remember best, is when I was a teenager and I asked her that first time. We were in my old neighborhood at night, all the way up at the top of the highest hill and looking out over the city of Chino Hills, all lit up in the darkness, and I asked her, and she said yes.
Your mother is the best person that I have ever known or will ever know. She is the kindest, most beautiful, most honorable, hardest working woman I’ve ever encountered. When she was only a little older than you, one of her most favorite things to do in the world was play basketball. It was one of the few things she was truly good at, that was all hers (besides running). When your uncle and aunt were born, she was told she couldn’t do that anymore because she had to stay home to help raise them.
Can you imagine doing that? Every day, your mother, who wasn’t even old enough to start dating boys, was changing the diapers and preparing the meals for both the kids and her mom (your Lita) who was coming home late from work and expecting food to be on the table. When your mom was old enough to drive, she wasn’t driving around with her girlfriends going to movies or parties or dances. She was driving her little brother and sister to and from school. I know; I was there riding along with her.
When she was old enough to go to college, she went. She wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do for a living, like most kids her age, but she was told by her parents that she absolutely must go to college. I wanted her to go too because I wanted her to be able to have a job and support herself if anything ever happened to me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that your mother paid for her own college without any help.
Your mother paid for everything on her own. When she wanted to go to the Prom or any of the other school dances, or go out on those rare nights when she wasn’t watching the kids, or do anything else that required money, she paid for it. Mom paid for everything that she wanted with her own money that she earned at Jack in the Box. She was making shit money and it was a miserable, thankless job that she hated but she went to work and did it every day because there wasn’t anyone there to hand her a few bucks when she needed it and, if there had been, she wouldn’t have taken it. She didn’t want anyone else’s money.
I can’t remember your mother ever complaining about that job. She sucked it up and did it.
She sucked it up and she paid for her gas and insurance. She sucked it up and paid for the few dances that I was willing to take her to (I really wish I had taken her to more). She sucked it up and paid for her own college. I never paid for any of my college – my parents saved a bunch of cash to send me and then let me have it when I was ready to go. I didn’t have to work for it. I just had to show up and get good grades. Your mom worked a full time job at the bank (she flipped burgers in high school and worked at the bank when she was in college) and took a full load of classes at college (a full load means that she had to spend as much time working on school stuff as she did working on her job stuff). Whenever I saw your mom, she was so tired from all the work and the school and worrying about her grades and trying to graduate on time so that we could get married the way we wanted to, that she was either falling asleep, asleep, or she was crying because she was terrified that she was going to fail somewhere and come up short.
But she didn’t. Despite everything stacked against her, despite all of the excuses she could have made to quit, despite all of the reasons why she shouldn’t have been able to get it done, she got it done. What she did, all on her own with the help of no one, is amazing and still amazes me to this day.
More than anything, Mom wanted to be a mom. We used to argue about it a lot when we were kids because she knew she wanted children but I didn’t. I just didn’t think I was cut out to be a father and the idea of having some little person being totally dependent on me didn’t sound like any fun at all. I was a kid. I wasn’t man enough to be a father.
After we got married, she wanted to be a mom even more, and now, I wasn’t just not ready to be a father, I was scared too because I knew we didn’t make enough money to have a baby. Again, we argued over it, and I always used money to hold her off, too afraid to deal with the deeper issue at hand: she really wanted to have a baby and I really didn’t.
Well, things happen when you’re married, and your mother got pregnant for the first time. I don’t think we were even married for a full year. I can’t tell you how afraid I was; she didn’t care, she was just excited she was going to be a mom – it was the most important thing in her life to her, more important than me even. All I could think about was how I was going to pay for everything.
Well, things happen when you’re pregnant, sometimes, and your mother couldn’t keep the baby. This was really hard for both her and me. It was hard for her because of everything I’ve already said here. Her best most happy dream was to be a mother; she thought she was going to get it, and then that dream was taken away.
What happened to me was a little different. I went from being terrified of being a father, from not want to be a father, to being excited. I realized I wanted a baby too. Everything your mom wanted was starting to make sense to me; I understood why she wanted a child so badly and I was on board now! I’m going to be a daddy! And then we lost our first baby.
There actually wasn’t a baby there, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s hard to explain, but your mom got pregnant without actually growing a baby inside of her. Picture an egg with no baby chicken inside. So it’s not like we actually lost anything; there was never anything there to begin with. We were sad, sure, but we were okay. We both knew we wanted a baby (we wanted you) very badly and we started working on making that happen. I’m not going to go into detail here, because I don’t want to gross you out. You know how all this works by now.
The second time your mother was pregnant, it was much worse. I’ve told you this before but your mom isn’t good at carrying babies inside of her. This isn’t a skill you can get better at, either; her body just isn’t built to do it well. She gets incredibly sick and it takes a lot out of her.
This second time she got pregnant, there was a baby in her, only it was killing her to carry it. The longer she had it in there, the worse it got for her. She couldn’t keep down any food that she ate; she threw it all up. Because she couldn’t keep her food down, she couldn’t get any nutrition, so she literally started to starve. She also couldn’t keep any water down, so she began to dehydrate very badly.
The same thing that happens to people who don’t eat food or drink water started happening to your mom. She began starving to death very, very slowly. Inside of her, organs stopped working correctly and I believe parts of her were starting to shut down. I had her into the hospital every couple of weeks so that we could put an IV in her (that means “intravenous drip”, which is a bag of water that has vitamins that you inject directly into the veins to keep someone from dying of dehydration) and try to get her back up to a safe level but she never got fully back to a place where she was safe. Towards the end, her appendix failed (which is a tiny organ inside of your body attached to your intestine) and had to be removed. I truly believe her appendix failed because parts of her insides were starting to shut down on her.
Your mom had a very hard decision to make. She could try to keep the baby and see how much worse things would get or she could terminate the baby and be better again. This time was different from when we lost the first pregnancy. There was a real baby inside of her. I had seen it in the sonogram (which is a machine that lets you see inside the mother’s stomach). I had seen the baby’s heart beating. I saw his legs and arms; his head. We knew it was a boy from the images.
I don’t know what would have happened if your mom hadn’t stopped the pregnancy but I will tell you: I honestly believe delivering that baby would have killed her. If she had tried to keep that baby she would have died.
Only at the time, when she decided she had to terminate, I didn’t understand any of this and wanted to keep the baby anyway. I would tell you we fought over it but there was never any fighting. She refused to fight. She said only, “This is what has to happen”, and I begged her not to do it, and she couldn’t give me what I wanted because it would have killed her.
I was too foolish to understand that. Angry and hurt, I almost divorced her because at that time, I found it really hard to keep loving her.
There was only one thing that kept me from divorcing Mom. I thought about the woman I had known for the last 9 years and everything I knew about her and asked myself: Would she really be doing this if she didn’t know it was absolutely necessary for her to stay alive?
The answer was: No. Your mother had no choice.
Now that I realized this, I went back to her and told her how sorry I was for not understanding what she had to do. I was very, very lucky that she was willing to keep me around, son.
It’s very important that you understand this. Your mother had to make the hardest decision of her life on her own without my support because I failed to understand what she was going through.
I will never let that happen again no matter what. I will spend the rest of my life making up for that one failure. It’s something I myself cannot let go.
One day, when you are married, you may be faced with a decision between what you most want and what your wife needs. It will be the most important decision of your marriage. If that day comes, please read this letter again and think about how I failed. Please learn from what I did wrong.
Your mom had the hardest decision of her life and she made it on her own because no one else around her was strong enough to deal with it.
That’s who your mom is. She’s strong enough to deal with the things that I can’t handle.
I’m going to leave you with one last thing. You see, after everything we’d been through, even after nearly getting a divorce, your mother still wanted to be a mom. She wanted you more than anything in her life and she wasn’t willing to let anything get in the way of that, not even if it meant getting pregnant could kill her. I was terrified because I didn’t want her to go through it again; I didn’t know if I could go through it again. But your mom convinced me that this is what she needed and I wasn’t going to let her down.
We got pregnant again, and I sat back, afraid now, waiting for her body to fail her like it had done before. Only this time, it didn’t. It was still hard on her. She still threw up most of her food and spent months and months just being sick and confined to a bed or a couch. But this time, she was able to keep just a little bit of her food down. This time, she was able to get more water and keep hydrated. It never got quite as bad as it did before. I kept waiting for it to get worse, I kept waiting for the hospital trips to start again…but they never did.
We did about five or six months of her being sick and throwing up every day (but not as bad as before), and then a true miracle happened: she started getting better. She started being able to eat all kinds of different foods. She was able to eat pasta and steak and all the things she loved from before she was pregnant. One day, she and I looked at each other, and we realized that for whatever reason, we were going to get to keep this baby. And that baby was you. This moment, when we learned you were going to stay with us, continues to be one of the happiest memories I have. I’m pretty sure it’s hers too.
After you were born, I found your mother alone one night in the shower, holding her stomach and crying very hard. You were already born and I had you wrapped up in a crib; I couldn’t understand why she would be holding her stomach and crying like that. I was afraid she was hurting or that something was wrong so I asked her what was going on, very alarmed, maybe even yelling, but not mad yelling. Scared yelling.
She told me she was crying because you were outside of her now and that she couldn’t protect you anymore. There was a big, ugly, fucking evil world out there and she knew she couldn’t get between the world and you every time anymore. Now that you were born and outside of her stomach, there was a possibility that something could happen to you without happening to her.
Please think about this for a minute, son. Whatever happened to you, she wanted it to happen to her too. If, god forbid, there was something that happened that could have killed you, she wanted to die too.
She’s still like that.
Your mom isn’t perfect, kid. There’re a lot of things she does that drives you and I crazy. She’s stubborn and impatient and sometimes she gets loud or mean or she might yell or curse. She can be really hard, I know. But I need you to remember that this imperfect woman is the same woman that went through hell and nearly killed herself to bring you here because she loved you more than herself even before she knew who you were.
Before she knew who you were she loved you more than anything. Now that she knows you, sees who you are and the kind of person you’re growing into, she loves you even more. Like I do.
That’s who Mom is.
She is the greatest woman I’ve ever known and will ever know and my greatest wish for you is that you one day meet a woman for yourself who is for you what your mom has been for me.
The next time you have a chance, I want you to tell her you love her and really mean it. Don’t just say it because that’s what kids say to moms. Make her believe it. It’s critical that you both get it. The next time you guys fight or you get mad at her for some reason, because she’s being herself and doing what she does, because she’s yelling or because she’s frustrated and not listening to you, please, please come back and read this letter again and remember what I’m telling you here. Your mom isn’t perfect, and neither are you, buddy.
But never, ever forget who Mom is and how much she loves us.