Between our favored Instagram accounts, “self-help” books, and YouTube videos, we’re constantly inundated with information about the best ways to show ourselves kindness and support. But for many women, some of the most impactful, enduring lessons in self-love come from their mothers. Often, they’re our first role models when it comes to kindness, affection, and intimacy — and in turn, they can set our standards in self-esteem and personal validation.
For 9-year-old Kendall Parker, her mother Whitney, and her grandmother — Whitney’s mother-in-law — Terri, this is certainly the case. While the three women have come of age in different generations, and their definitions of self-love have shifted over the years, they all share a common belief in the essential act of prioritizing yourself — even while supporting the people around you. Ahead, we spoke to all three generations about the lessons in self-love they’ve learned over the years, as taught by their own mothers.
Terri Parker, 62, Church Administrator
Whitney considers her mother-in-law Terri a “bonus mom,” especially in the last several years, when Whitney and her birth mother have shared a fairly strained, distant relationship. “I learned a lot of lessons about how to slow down from my mother-in-law…[at] a point in my life where I was burning out,” she says. At the time, Whitney was traveling for work constantly, trying to balance her professional life with her roles as a wife and a mother. Terri reminded her that while motherhood is all about caring for someone else, that doesn’t mean you need to neglect yourself.
It’s a lesson Terri, a Washington, D.C. native, learned from her own mother, who always taught the importance of being kind to yourself — even while doing your best as a spouse and a parent. “My mother didn't want me to forget about myself in the process of taking care of my family,” Terri says.
But learnings in self-love can come from both directions. Terri has also learned a fair share from Whitney’s relationship with her daughter Kendall, seeing something remarkable in the ways this new generation operates.
“It's encouraging to see the relationship [Kendall and Whitney] have together — how they’re transparent, open, and honest with one another,” she says. “In my generation, that wasn’t necessarily the case. I love watching Whitney with her daughters. It’s encouraging and supportive and candid. It’s rewarding and refreshing.”
A few swipes through Whitney’s Instagram will quickly reveal that her two daughters, Kendall, 9, and Kali, 5, are the epicenter of her world — much like the relationship she had with her own mother as a girl.
When Whitney reached her 20s, however, their relationship hit a rough patch. After having Kendall, Whitney was single, struggling with her career, and living at home with her mother. As she worked to navigate parenthood for the first time on her own terms, she and her mother fought constantly about how best to approach raising Kendall — everything from what she ate to how long she slept to where she would go to school. Their disagreements escalated until Whitney determined that, in order to be a mother on her own terms, she needed to move out and put some distance between them.
“At the time, I didn’t understand how to take what I needed from my mother’s guidance and leave what I didn’t,” says Whitney. “I was young. I was growing into myself and learning what it meant to be a mother at the same time. And at a certain point, as an adult raising my own kids, I had to prioritize my relationships differently. I had to put myself and my kids first.”
Now, years later, Whitney’s relationship with her mother remains somewhat strained. They talk every few weeks on the phone. They see each other on family occasions, but they certainly haven’t reverted to the best friendship they once shared. Even so, Whitney cites this distancing as a necessary growing pain. She feels she’s learned something impactful from the boundaries put between them.
“Throughout our ups and downs, I found my voice,” says Whitney. “[My mother] is a very strong woman, and I’ve pulled so much from her. I learned to not be fearful of what you choose for yourself. To go for what you think you need, with pride.”
Kendall Parker, 9, Student
Keni, as Kendall is affectionately called, is a bright third-grader and an enthusiastic dancer at Dance Makers Inc., a Maryland-based performing arts company that specializes in teaching self-expression through dance. But even at 9 years old, she’s not immune to self-consciousness. While a talented dancer, Keni spends a great deal of time dwelling on her height, believing herself to be “too tall.” Her mother Whitney, however, is adamant about teaching her daughter that self-love should always be a priority — and that she should feel proud of the space she takes up, both as a dancer and a young woman.
“When I was young, I was really embarrassed about my own height,” says Whitney. “Self-love wasn’t a priority. We didn’t have social media platforms empowering all shapes and sizes of young Black girls. But my girls are growing up in this generation with powerful, outspoken women all over the news and all across their social media feeds who preach about loving yourself. All these brilliant examples of pride and self-confidence.”
For Kendall, her mother is one of those figures. And Whitney is teaching her not just to practice self-love but also to find modes of expression that help her do so — that make her feel at home in her body, rather than resentful of it.
“When I talk to my mom, it makes me feel like I'm in a safe space,” says Kendall. “Some of the best advice that she’s given is to use my voice and image but to understand that they don't define me. I should be bold and not just blend in. If people don’t like what I'm doing, I’ll still do it because I love it, like dancing. Dance is my version of self-love. It says what I need to say without words.”