Our series of personal essays by contributing writers is currently focusing on a theme that everyone can relate to: parents. Here is Lisa Rubisch, whose mom taught her an indelible mantra…
When I was three, I rode a lime green tricycle, chopper-style, with a double step in the back and sparkly fringe on its handles. I pedaled exuberantly past the row houses in our Philadelphia neighborhood; the sun in my eyes, the wind in my mouth, my mother, pregnant with my sister, skipping strides to keep up. The sidewalks were like Jack-o’-lantern teeth, crooked and uneven. Whenever I came to a bump, I would slow down and cry, “Mommy, I can’t!”
Ordinarily, my mother would give me a boost up and over, but this one day, she said, “Can’t means won’t.”
“I can’t do it!” I repeated.
“If you say you can’t do it, Lisa, what you really mean is you won’t do it,” she said.
At the time, her words were incomprehensible. Just help me already!
“Try again,” she told me.
“But I can’t!”
“Can’t means won’t!”
We went around and around until I grew so frustrated, I pushed my foot against the pedal as hard as I could… and made it over the crack.
Can’t Means Won’t became my mother’s mantra throughout my childhood. You can’t figure out integers or you won’t figure out integers? You can’t memorize the monologue or you won’t memorize it? You can’t put that mean girl in her place or you won’t do it?
Nothing is more infuriating than being told Can’t Means Won’t by your mother, head cocked, hand on hip, damp dishtowel on her shoulder perfumed with Lemon Joy. But nothing lights a better fire under you. Can’t Means Won’t was a dare, a battle cry, a provocation that said don’t underestimate yourself. If you want to do something badly enough, you’ll do it.
It’s a choice.
As I grew older, I took it to mean other, more nuanced things. Don’t play it safe. Don’t follow every rule. When someone tells you, “You can’t,” you roll up your sleeves and prove them wrong.
From my high school guidance counselor: “Don’t run for student council, because as a new student here, you will never win.”
From my college career advisor: “You will never work in film because you didn’t do an internship.”
From a production assistant when I was interning at MTV: “You will never get hired here.”
From my first boss at MTV: “This idea sucks. Try reading some books on television theory.”
From my own mother: “You can’t move to New York City. You will never be able to support yourself there.”
Thank god I didn’t listen to them.
If it sounds easy, I can assure you it’s not. I work in the male-dominated industry of commercial directing and have had to put my foot down hard on the pedal and push forward with everything I’ve got. Even after two decades of directing (and forty-some years of life), there are times I feel invisible or daunted. There are days of despair. A project comes in and I’ll occasionally feel the weight of self doubt park itself squarely on my chest, making it difficult to breathe, let alone work. There is misogyny. There is subtle condescension. Frat boy humor. There are very conservative clients who take one look at me and don’t expect me to have an opinion. There are moments where the voice in my head says flatly: You can’t. And sometimes I find myself whispering back, OK, fine, so I won’t.
The other day, my ten year-old son, Beckett, came to me in a panic. He had forgotten his reading club book at school over the weekend and was now 50 pages behind everyone else and it was Level X and he’s only a V and the vocabulary was impossible and he hated the premise and he was dumb and he couldn’t do it.
I scooped him up in my lap. I wiped his tears. I opened the book and said, let’s read it together. I imagined him on the bike. I saw myself standing behind him in my mother’s shoes. I was about to utter the infamous words but then I stopped myself and reframed them for him. And maybe for myself as well.
“You can,” I told him. “You will.”
(Illustration by Kristen Solecki for Cup of Jo.)