A Mother’s Mantra

A Mother's Mantra

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.”

Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She also contributes writing to websites, anthologies and books.

P.S. A romantic trip gone awry, and how to talk to little girls.

(Illustration by Kristen Solecki for Cup of Jo.)

  1. Jessie says...

    I group up with a similar phrase from my paternal grandmother whom I never met: “Can’t never could.”

  2. Cricri says...

    Beautiful sharing this!
    My dad always told me, and every kid around him in life, when they said “I can’t do it” -> “There is no “I can’t ” – if you want to, you can!”.

    Of course we can’t lift up 3000 pounds with our bare hands, but if they need lifting, there’s always another means ;). I also believe in God which makes it even ‘easier” to believe in your abilities when supported by the strongest in your path.


  3. Smj0304 says...

    Oh those last two sentences got me. Yes we can and we will! –

  4. this is one of the most amazing things i have ever read. how powerful. i am taking this to heart and using it!!

  5. Gabrielle says...

    I have sent this link to my best mama friends this morning. What a sweet, inspiring read.

  6. I love this! I’m a competitive gymnastics coach and I definitely want to start using this with my gymnasts. There’s another quote, similar to this that I really like: “Fight for your limitations and you get to keep them.”

  7. My Grandpa hated it when we would say we would “try”. He said you don’t try to do something you either do it or you don’t.

    • Mila says...

      OMG! Yoda is your grandpa? :)

  8. Liz C says...

    I LOVE this!!!

  9. Vonnie Graffam says...

    Oh wow Lisa, this was absolutely wonderful. I wish I knew your mom! Then again, I know you and I know you are a wonderful and inspiring mom.
    When I read the dish towel smelling of Lemon joy, I was there! Your words jumped off the screen at me. You have a “way with words” as they say.

  10. Sonja says...

    My mom is so fierce and nothing deters her. Whenever I call her troubled about something or another she always says the same two things, “How much water have you had?” and asks me to repeat “I’m healthy, wealthy, and wise” until I believe it.

  11. Summer says...

    I see Lisa’s name and can’t click fast enough; every time she’s featured, I love her more!

    That is a great saying..wish my mom had thought of it. #millennialprincess ;)

  12. Quinn says...

    I absolutely love this. What great advice for children who need to learn resilience and hard work…and what a great reminder for adults (especially women) who sometimes forget their inner strength and power.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hear hear!

  13. Great essay! My mother always said to us growing up, “there’s no such thing as can’t.” Thinking back, it had a great effect on me. Hurray for supportive mums :)

  14. Anne says...


  15. jennie says...

    My mom said/says, “Can’t never could!”.

    I say that to my babies now and it is a wonderful tradition to share.

  16. Devon says...

    Growing up in martial arts dojos, our teachers would always say to us “If you can’t, you must. If you must, you will.” It’s about prioritizing yourself, picking the things that challenge you, and not getting in the way of yourself.

  17. Meg says...

    My parents said/say this too! And as a mother of three (three and under) I can imagine how your exhausted pregnant mother was feeling and what was going through her mind when she decided that morning “Nope, you need to learn to do this for yourself!” ?

  18. Rachel says...

    This is absolutely amazing and it gave me chills since my dad had a very similar mantra that I’ve appropriated in the same way as the author: “Can’t never will.” I suppose his frame emphasized the defeatist attitude more than the choice, but the lesson is the same. My dad died 14 years ago and on the eve of his funeral (on October 11, 2002), I thought it would be impossible for me to stand before those gathered and speak. But his words — can’t never will — gave me courage as it has my entire life.

  19. My dad used to tell me, when I was being stubborn and hard-headed, “There’s an easy way to do this and there’s a hard way. Which one do you want?” It taught to me to calm myself down and have patience when I’m frustrated. But it also taught me that I can do hard things. Now, I don’t like to turn down a challenge. It will be hard – there’s an easier way, but I will grow through the experience.

  20. This is beautiful, and so well written. I can se her mother, and I can see my own in a very similar way. How important these little lessons are for children to take and use as adults. My children are 2 and 8mo, I am absolutely implementing this mantra in our lives :)


  21. Laura says...

    I don’t remember my mom ever saying the words, but this sentiment was woven deeply into my upbringing. Self reliance and perseverance are core values in my family and it never occurred to me that there was anything I couldn’t do.

  22. Claire says...

    This is a sweet and thoughtful post. Thanks. I’ve adopted, “not I can’t, I can try” with my 5 and 2 year olds but I like the won’t as a challenge. My 5 year old now asks my 2 year old if he wants to be the kid who tries as the high standard of behaviour.

  23. Emmanuella says...

    Dammit, you did it! You finally got me to tear up! Years of evading the cup of jo tears and it finally hit me. Well done, Lisa Rubisch.

  24. Love this. I’ve told my son since about age 2, “be a solution kid, not a give up kid.” I think I drove him crazy with that till about age 7 when he would get frustrated and FIGURE IT OUT and then come to me, so proud and say “I’m a solution kid, Mom.”

  25. This is lovely. My own mother has never been very encouraging (I was strongly encouraged to strive to be a pretty wife and mom and nothing more), a message I both railed against and internalized a little bit. I try so hard to be encouraging to both of my kids, especially my daughter, and the words I always say to her when she says she can’t are “you can do it, I know you can.” I always wondered if it really meant anything to her, or if it helped, although it seemed to. Then one day we were swimming, and I was going to do a cannonball and I hesitated. She looked me in the eye and said “you can do it, I know you can.” It felt so good to get such sweet encouragement (from a four year old, no less), and even better to get some confirmation that even at such a young age she’s absorbed the meaning of my words.

  26. Really sweet. This, too, was my father’s mantra… so frustrating as a kid, so true as an adult! (He also likes his other go-to: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” which, you know, Catholicism…ha!)

  27. what a sweet mantra- i also love the illustration!

  28. Kali says...

    I’m overtired so this made me well up as well but also, because it’s so on point. I have two young girls. I’m adopting this immediately. Thank you.

    • Me too! Over tired, teary eyed, 2 young children and adopting this!

  29. Jessie says...

    Love this mantra! May need to start using it with my own little (2 yr old) Beckett :)

  30. Kadija says...

    I teared up reading this story; it was so incredibly touching and hit the delicate spot right where I am with my soon-to-be 8 year old son. We conquered massive things in his world this weekend, and there were tears and despair and anger…and he pushed through and learned so many lessons for such a little guy. I can’t wait to scoop him up this evening with this resounding statement: “You can, you will!” Thank you, Lisa <3

  31. Long time reader, but first time commenter here :) Had to comment because my dad wrote a book (The Transformative Leader – Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary) and chapter 5 is titled: There is no “I can’t!” Only “I don’t want to!”

    Here’s The Bottom Line summary from that chapter, which is so in line with this post! He says, “We often use the language and mindset of ‘I can’t’ when we choose not to take the steps that we know we should take. This perpetuates the idea that something outside of us is keeping us from taking action. Being straight about why we don’t want to take those steps puts us back in charge. It puts us back in touch with our power to move forward, or allows us to freely declare that achieving our goal is not worth accepting the consequences of the action it takes to make it happen. ”

    Had to share. I LOVE cup of jo and the cup of jo community of commenters :)

  32. Lisa says...

    This really touched me today Jo and I rarely comment.

    Thanks also for bringing some special readers comments to the forefront on Friday’s. I absolutely love hearing from your audience! Great idea!

    • Josephine says...

      I’ll second that! I rarely get to read through the comments (today would be an exception), I love to hear what others have to say.

      This is a beautiful post, and is a concept I’ll be carrying forward with my children and myself.

  33. Celeste says...

    Gorgeous essay! Also, this: “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.”

  34. Kelley says...

    This is so good. Makes me think of a phrase my parents always said to me, “endeavor to persevere”

  35. Tristen says...


  36. yael steren says...

    Love this. One of my favorite mantra’s is I let go of all fear and doubt and life becomes simple and easy for me! xx yael

  37. Tough love at it’s best. Thank you <3

  38. lea says...

    a few months ago i was working out with my gym buddy who told me to push myself and lift heavier. when i told him i can’t he just looked at me sternly and said “never say ‘i can’t’. only say ‘i will try’.” i tried and was shocked that i actually could do it. it’s my new mantra and i use it with my daughter now, too.

  39. I adore this! Our family motto is “Never never never give up.” But I love the more nuanced meaning of this – and I think it would work better on my four-year-old. Beautiful essay!

  40. tunie says...

    Great story! my mother’s mantra was, “Be more conscious!” – usually said in response to breaking something or the like but as an adult it still applies in so many more advanced situations.

  41. TMER says...


  42. Lydia says...

    Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin cited a similar saying in her Golden Globes speech. “My dad used to say, ‘Today’s a great day. You can and you will.’ Well, Dad, I can and I did.” Beautiful!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Love this!

  43. Alston says...

    Needed this so much today. THANK YOU!

  44. Natalie Brennan says...

    Beautiful! The end made my eyes water. Thank you, Lisa.

  45. Inbal says...

    Made me cry. Beautiful.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      me too!

  46. Ashley F. says...

    Really lovely story. I strongly connected with her mothers encouragement style. I was taught to put an ‘ry’ at the end of an ‘I can’t’. Instead of defeat and doubt, you are now telling yourself ‘I can tRY.’ That’s all a person needs sometimes; permission to try and maybe fail and then keep trying until you achieve your goal.

  47. jean says...

    This made we realize that internally I say “I can’t” a lot. It is instantly motivational to think “I can’t or I won’t!” Suddenly the thing seems possible. and up to you to go after. Love this!

  48. Rachel says...

    What a great mantra! Though I am an avid Cup of Jo reader, this is the first time I’ve been compelled to comment. This really speaks to me, as I also work in a male-dominated field, technical support engineering, and I have also learned over time to not listen to anyone casting doubt, but push myself forward, and say to myself ” I can” .
    BTW, I would love to see more essays or a series on women in non-traditional jobs such as engineering, scientist, commercial director, etc. and what their job experiences are like.

    • I second that request! I work in oil and gas and the misogyny faced in this industry is fierce. I’ve encountered everything from sexual assault to job stagnation because of my gender. It can be brutal, even as things are quickly changing. They’ve changed quite a bit in just the eleven years I’ve been in the industry, and they will continue to change as the current leaders retire. I would be happy to share my experiences.

  49. Glenda says...

    Can’t was not allowed growing up. Love this post!

  50. rach says...

    I love this mantra. So important to remember as a new mama of a 13mo old. I need to remember to remind this to my beautiful daughter who I know will move mountains.

  51. Jamie says...

    I love this! I remember Lisa as we went to the same college (she was a friend of a friend). What a talented writer she is.

  52. Miranda says...

    Love this! Thanks for sharing. My mom always told me “P.M.A.” or “Positive Mental Attitude” when I was growing up. As a kid I didn’t understand how to do it, as a teenager I cringed every time she would say it, but now I find myself whispering “P.M.A., P.M.A., P.M.A.!” to myself whenever I need to remind myself that positivity is a choice.

    Little did I know how much that wise mantra would get me through emotional days, tough times at work, and all those little moments when negativity wants to seep in. Moms really do know it all.

  53. Oh, I love this. So simple, yet so true. I love how this mantra demonstrates how you have to take action. We can’t let obstacles stop us- we have keep going. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    XOXO, Amy @ Jeans and a Tea

  54. Alex Chua says...

    This made me cry in a good way. Thanks so much for sharing.

  55. oh i love this. when i was growing up i was a competitive gymnast, and the word can’t was banned in the gym. it was known as “the C word” and if it came out of your mouth it was push ups right then and there! however subtly, i still tend to think of that word as a bad one, though it’s nice to be reminded of why now and again. thank you :)

  56. This is absolutely wonderful. Thank yoU!