Lessons From My Mother

Last month marked one year since my mother’s passing from this earth. This past year has been marked by moments of heartache—for her guidance, conversation, hugs—but also growth and understanding. It is out of this major life milestone in this past year that I started my consulting business, after moving my family across the country to be with her. I often wonder what she would say if I were able to pick up the phone and tell her about my week, about every new client, about the relationships I’m building, and about balancing it all when the kids’ school was closed for an entire week due to snow! But while I can’t have those conversations, I have been reflecting on what she left behind, and how the lessons have shaped me into the professional I’m proud to be today.

Let me tell you a little about my mother. Born in a small town in northwestern Ohio, she went on to become a beloved and respected professor and scholar of Religious Studies. She learned eight languages, lectured in ten countries, and was a sought-after speaker in her field of biblical interpretation, but her greatest professional joy always seemed to come from guiding her students and younger colleagues. I watched her care as deeply for the custodian in her building as the tenured professors in her department. Even as she faced an unbelievable (and valiantly fought) battle with pancreatic cancer, she was always thinking of others.

The photo above hangs in my office as a daily reminder. Here are the biggest lessons I strive to live by as I continue to serve others through my nonprofit consulting business.

Be an asker.

My mother always sought real, deep understanding—not only in her scholarship, but also in the people around her. I’ve joked that she was never good at small talk; her conversations were driven by deeper meaning and an insatiable curiosity. It’s important to ask questions for which you really want to know the answer, and listen for understanding. Behind our professional masks, we are real people with real lives, and we find more meaning in our work when we have real connections to those with whom we have the privilege of working.  

Empathy can help get you through tough interactions.

It’s easy to get frustrated by how something is going, but it’s important to have an open heart and step outside of yourself at times. Whenever I faced a challenging work situation, my mother would always bring the conversation to how the other person might be feeling. Shortly after her death, I commented to a close friend of hers that she was the most non-judgmental person I knew, and she corrected me, saying that my mom instead knew how to suspend judgment. When we set judgment and emotions aside, and choose empathy, we can get at the heart of a problem and identify a path forward.

Always find gratitude.

Life is driven by a series of small acts, and it’s important to find moments to identify them. My mother took the time to acknowledge when people helped her, whether her family members, colleagues, or grocery clerks. It’s important to take the time to share your gratitude with others for things big and small. Acknowledge when someone has spent energy on something that benefitted you, or that inspired you in some way. Take time out of your day to send an appreciative email, or even better, the ever-rare real thank you note.

Pay it forward with younger colleagues.

It has been so powerful in this past year to hear from my mother’s former students and colleagues. She was mission-driven to inspire future scholars and plant the seeds for the deeper understanding to come. She always appreciated hearing when I counseled interns and younger colleagues. We have all been in places where we needed professional guidance—I have throughout my career—and it’s important, no matter how long our “to do” list, to extend a hand when asked.

You’re never too old to experience the “child’s mind” and find joy.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. I saw this with my mom in the many times she—a renowned scholar—would get on the floor with my kids and squeal with genuine delight during imaginative play. But, I also saw it in her professional life in the ways she handled adversity with a heavy dose of a humor. I laugh at the memory of her and a close colleague buying concrete lawn ornaments when their university department was temporarily moved to a trailer. They found humor—and joy—in a frustrating situation.

Being there for your kids and getting fulfillment from your career are important.

This one is multi-layered. First, sometimes you need to take the long view when approaching goals, and it’s never too late to go after what you want. My mother taught part-time when we were kids, didn’t land a tenure-track position until I was in college, and finally got tenure when I was in graduate school! Secondly, you can compartmentalize and have different impacts in your family and professional lives. Hearing anecdotes from my mother’s professional colleagues after her death, I felt as if there was this entirely different world that I hadn’t known, as if my mom stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia when attending international conferences; when she came back, she was still our same mom taking us to soccer practice, helping with math homework, and later, coloring with our kids. Both worlds were profoundly important to her.

Meet challenges with acceptance.

During my mother’s unbelievably challenging battle with pancreatic cancer, she showed not just strength and courage, but acceptance. She straddled the line of fighting the fight and knowing that it might not be won. She gave freely in a time of great vulnerability. She didn’t give up, but she also prepared herself—and those around her—for the time when the battle came to an end. Thinking more broadly, it’s important to recognize that there are some things that you just cannot change. Breathe deeply. We’ve all had failures—sometimes due to our own missteps and other times due to circumstances out of our control. Either way, it’s important to accept them—in ourselves and in others—and not beat ourselves up, but instead learn and move forward, making the best of our situation.


These are all lessons that my mother—known affectionately to many as Momo, Judy, Jude, Judith, Dr. Kovacs, and Mrs. K—left behind. They are mantras that I ponder as I ring in 2022 and embrace what this year brings. I carry her influence on my shoulders as I open my laptop every morning and go down the paths ahead. My gratitude extends from her to my family, friends, and to my clients, as I strive to be an asker and find joy in my work every day.  

Published by Ellen Spangler

Hi, I’m Ellen Spangler. With nearly twenty years in nonprofits, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. My first love will always be museums, but I have also cherished my work in education and membership organizations. I’ve worked as a Development Director, Communications Director, Educator, Trainer and Project Manager, and now own and operate a consulting business, Three Notch’d Nonprofit Solutions.

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