Watching the Democratic National Convention this week, I was struck by the convention’s focus on mothers’ legacies, particularly in Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton’s superb speeches. Clinton’s statement -- “My mother was born before women could vote. But in this election my daughter got to vote for her mother for president” -- highlights the incredible transition that took place in my own mother’s (and grandmother’s) lifetimes.
My mother, a retired social work professor, turns 70 today. I am here with her, along with my four year old daughter and my 95 year old grandmother, to celebrate her birthday and the four generations of women of our family.
Although my mother and I are both academics, our experiences as academics and mothers have been quite different. Unlike me, my mother didn’t get her PhD until her early 50s. An academic superstar in high school in the 1950s, my mother was a dutiful daughter who assumed she would marry and have a family, like her own mother. She went to an Ivy League college, but majored in home economics and married my father soon after graduation. Like many women of her generation, she worked while my father was in graduate school, but stayed home once they had children. In the early 1960s my mother worked alongside my father registering voters in Fayette County, Tennessee. However, although radicals, they never questioned my father’s role as the leader. She never expected to be suddenly in the position where she’d have to support a family, have to reinvent herself. Yet after my father left her in the early 1970s, she did. She got her MSW and became a social worker.
Growing up, mine was the only working mother I knew. And she wasn’t a professor then, but a poorly-paid social worker. She led groups for teenage mothers and facilitated meetings between incest survivors and perpetrators. Although I wanted nothing to do with that kind of work (I’d rather read Jane Austen novels, thank you), I always assumed I would have my own career, and that I would support myself.
After 15 years as a social worker, my mother decided to teach social work instead, and so she went back to graduate school to earn her PhD. As an older female graduate student, learning statistical analysis on the computer must have been intimidating, but it never occurred to me that she couldn’t do it. I used to joke that she must have jotted “finish course work” and “write dissertation” on her to-do list, and then quickly crossed them off. She completed her dissertation lickety-split and then found a tenure-track job within miles of her home. I was in graduate school myself at the time and although the job market I faced in the humanities was a bit less negotiable, my mother showed me that graduate school is a series of manageable tasks.
I never really questioned the choices she made: I guess our parents’ choices seem inevitable. It’s only later, once I became a mother too, that I realize my mother could have responded quite differently to the changes in her life. And it occurred to me, for the first time, that this hyper-competent woman might have been afraid. Afraid that she might not be able to manage it all. What I remember as occasional harshness – her telling me, “you can’t be sick today, I have to work” -- was probably panic. And her inability, at times, to be emotionally present, was the other side of her focus on what had to be done.
I don’t know how much I’m like my mother; Who does? Unlike my mother, I waited until after I had my career firmly in place before I started a family. (Incidentally, it was my grandmother, herself a homemaker, who helped support me through graduate school, proud of my degrees and never once asking me when I would get married!) But if I am a calmer, less rushed, more emotionally present mother, it’s because I know I can take care of myself, that I’m strong, capable, and equal to any task. This my mother gave me.
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