Tag Archives: career

My Parents’ Gifts of Love

With the latest salvos in the Mommy Wars, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ push-me pull-you influence on my professional development.

When my father told me in high school that I had to take typing in case I ever had to support myself, I rolled my eyes. I thought it was stupid. I had no intention of making my living from typing.

By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to pursue the career that was my right. Women could succeed at anything they chose, if they were willing to work hard enough. Marriage or family could wait until my mid 30s — if they came at all. I had too much to do.

My mother was by no means pleased about the prospect of me pursuing a career. Work, yes. Career, no.

Tension between my mother and me surfaced as soon as I launched out on my own, following our usual pattern of escalation: explosion, “disagreeable disagreement” (as my mother put it), letters and rapprochement or at least truce.

On a telephone call home to Tacoma from Davis, California, I told Mom that I wasn’t ready to get married anytime soon although I was dating a great guy (now my husband of 31 years). Mom asserted that I was “throwing away a personal life.” The call did not end well.

I think I wrote first. She wrote a five page letter back. She explained, “There is a big difference in being work-oriented and career-oriented…. Career women were admired by my peers and sometimes even envied – but it was also expected that women would be women first and career women secondly…. But I don’t want you to think for a moment that I believe I did not have a career – I know I did have, and I am grateful to have lived at a time when being a full-time wife and mother, with all that entails, was possible….. Most parents want for their children what they feel they missed or wanted and didn’t get – I am just the opposite – I want my children to have what I have had. I really do believe, Betz, that a better state of affairs would exist in the world if mothers were home with their children…. I really have not meant to sound in any of our conversations as though I did not understand what you wanted – I really do – and I do understand what is happening with your generation. I know it is not possible – or perhaps even desirable – to live the kind of life I have lived. Though I do admit to wishing it were, but only because my own life has been one of satisfaction and fulfillment, and because I am wise enough to know that I have been singularly fortunate in having been on the receiving end of so much love…. I respect your desire for independence – that is certainly one sign of maturity – and in spite of how I may have come across to you, I surely want you to to find a job-career that will be challenging to you and which will utilize the many talents you possess…. What I hope you will find ultimately is a combination of personal and professional life. I really don’t believe you yourself will feel complete or whole unless you can function in life as a professional, but also as a woman…. It won’t be easy, when the time comes, to balance professional obligations with personal relationships – and since I can read, it obviously isn’t easy for any one, but if anyone can do it, I think you can.”

I did marry (at which Mom probably breathed a sigh of relief) and my career in marketing continued to advance.

Several years later, I phoned home on President’s Day weekend to share the good news that I’d been promoted. I stood on one side of the counter that divided our kitchen from the family room while my husband puttered away next to the sink. I could picture my parents hovering over the white speaker phone on the long formica counter in their kitchen, with the Springers, Katie and Beall, curled up underneath. Outside the window, the rhodies would be huddled close to the house as protection from the cool, wet weather. Mom would be wearing one of her thick woolen cardigans – maybe the fisherman’s knit with the Nordic buttons – and Dad would be clad in his usual winter uniform: heavy Pendleton shirt, Filson tin cloth trousers and suspenders (which Mom said made him look like a hick).

Even after four years of marriage and seven years away from Tacoma, I still missed home.

“I have some good news,” I began. Then I explained how my title had been changed from “manager” to “director” reflecting my broadened responsibilities.

My husband watched my face, smiling. Neither of my parents spoke right away. The expectant look slipped off my face as I waited. Finally, Mom blurted out, “That’s all fine, but what I want to know is when are you going to become a real woman?” By which she meant, a mother. My husband left the room when he saw my face tighten just before I started hollering. In Tacoma, I’m fairly certain that Dad did the same.

She wrote the next day: “Now to the nitty-gritty of children. Yours that is. Because I like babies – I hope you will have some, Betz. But that isn’t really any reason you should have one – or some. The only real over-riding reason for having a baby is because a particular moment is so special that there has to be an ultimate result. A moment of love so caring — so intense — that the only possible response of trying to produce a lasting memory of that time is to throw caution to the wind and trust in God and His purpose – and hope that a child of that moment of union and unity of spirit will produce a child of real love.”

Not long after, Mom must have conscripted Dad into a sit-down with me. She told me in no uncertain terms that she feared I would lose Todd if I kept on as I was — which was to say, pursuing a career. I don’t remember Dad saying anything during that conversation. There was simply no way to reconcile the world my mother grew up in with mine. She consequently watched the early years of my marriage with an impending sense of doom.

Eventually, Mom got her wish. Less than six months after the “when-are-you-going-to-become-a-real-woman” confrontation, I was pregnant. It turns out that fertility was an inherited trait.

I can’t say that I knew what I was getting myself into. Not the motherhood part, but the work-home balance part.

While I was pregnant, I was interviewed for local newspaper feature called “Women Trailblazers.” Noting my rather impressive belly (I had pregnancy-induced hypertension and had swelled to the size of an exercise ball), the reporter asked how I thought my career would change after I had the baby. I remember saying I didn’t expect anything to change. I would continue working and be a mother. Easy.

What I didn’t understand then was that attempting to have a career while being a good mother would push and pull me for the next 20 years. And that my career strategy would be to oscillate (or maybe vacillate): drive hard, succeed, cut back (with its commensurate loss of authority and/or influence), accept new challenge. Repeat three times.

Not until the end of my father’s life did I understand how he hoped to protect me from one of the worst things that he felt could befall a woman: being trapped in a marriage without an escape route. As his mother was. My father’s hopes for for me were shaped by his position as the middle child, a vantage point from which he witnessed his father’s verbal harangues and his mother’s suffering as his father departed each night for his mistress Erma’s home.

My grandfather apparently thought that he was marrying into money, knowing that my grandmother’s father was “the grand old man” of Yakima. When he learned that the family fortune had been decimated by investments in my great uncle’s failed ventures, he no longer had a reason to be pleasant. The relationship that my grandmother had been warned about continued after the marriage. At best, it was a loveless marriage. At worst, abusive.

My mother wanted to ensure that I did not lose out on love – either the love of a husband or the love of children, while my father quietly strived to make certain that I could never be trapped in a loveless marriage. What gifts.

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Naked Shredding and Other Awkward Retired Moments (Part Three)

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The project plan and portfolio of materials for Friends of Hospice (design by Pat Davis of Pat Davis Design)

(To start at the beginning of this little series, click here.)

What came next was… a whole lot of nothing. I had cleared the decks in anticipation of Dad moving to California, but he was hesitating. Even though he had already made THE BIG MOVE out of the family house three years prior, he was now nearly 89. Moving sounded so daunting: packing, change-of-address, changing doctors, etc.

I no longer had to check my Blackberry constantly for new texts or messages. My phone wasn’t ringing, and I didn’t have to coordinate my calendar through my assistant.

No one was looking for me, needing my input or approval.

I found out, as many retired caregivers do, that you are not quite as essential to the world as you thought you were. The void of your departure quickly fills. You find out who your real friends are.

I enjoyed walking in the cool of the mornings in Davis. I started going to yoga. And I began cleaning out my house with a vengeance.  I started tackling old papers, many of which needed to be shredded.

During those early days, with Maddie and Tommy off somewhere, and Todd at the office, I began to question my old routine of showering, blow-drying hair, dressing and putting on a little makeup. I dropped hair and makeup.  Who was going to see me? Then I started skipping showers on some days. Who would notice? And one day it just seemed stupid to dress. Why dress if no one could see you? It just adds to the laundry.

Which led to the naked shredding incident. There is something that just seems wrong about shredding with nothing on. House cleaning or cooking without clothes seems okay, but to shred just seems unhygienic.

“What are you doing,” I asked myself. I wrote my friend Jim – my mentor even then – about my crisis of productivity. How would I measure the value of my days without project assignments and milestones, without output? He counseled me to just breathe and I would figure out what I was meant to do.

I breathed all summer.

Then in the fall, with Maddie installed at college, a thought bubble appeared above my head. I had the rare opportunity to use my skills to further a cause I cared about, without having to charge for it. And I cared a lot about hospice.

My mother had the bad fortune to be admitted to a hospital on the weekend. Three physicians were involved in her care, no one seemed to have any idea what was planned, and the nursing staff was reluctant to “bother” a doctor when Mom “sundowned” and became deeply paranoid. I asked the nurse manager to arrange a meeting with whatever physician agreed to be in charge.

Mom’s doctor came in, sat at the conference table, and said, “Your mother is terminal. It would be kinder for all parties concerned if she winked out right here in the hospital.” Then he rose.

“We’re not done,” I said. I explained that we were under no illusions about her prognosis. But she was scared. And we wanted her to be able to die at home, with hospice.

Another doctor took over her care, one who was on the same page with us.

I knew then that hospice – still, after two decades – was poorly understood by lay people, and worse, by doctors. Having been responsible for communicating about a hospice program early in my career, I knew that hospice was not “giving up.” It was better care, more caring care. I knew my mother would want to be at home, looking out on her garden as it bloomed in the spring, surrounded by familiar things. Hospice was our best shot at being able to let her die at home, in comfort.

I offered to develop a pilot program under the auspices of the California Hospice Foundation to raise awareness of hospice among consumers. The “Friends of Hospice” public relations campaign was implemented successfully with the cooperation of three hospice programs and CSU Chico’s Tehama Group Communications in Chico, CA.

Sometime that fall, I talked to Fr. Greg Bonfiglio, president of Jesuit High School, about my transition. He asked,”Have you ever thought that perhaps you are being called to this work?”

Even after Dad moved to California in March 2006, I found that I still needed something beyond caregiving to provide meaning in my life. Maybe it’s that his needs weren’t that demanding. But I suspect more of it is what Mom recognized when she made her hospital bed speech and said that I was “competent, with a high level of activity.” It’s who I am.

As when Maddie and Tommy were young, I couldn’t completely let go of my own needs and focus only on theirs. Maybe it’s selfishness.  Some would certainly say that it is. I have a Puritan work ethic without the Calvinist self-loathing (as Dan Pallotta recently described it in his Ted Talk).

I wanted to make a difference in Dad’s world, and keep contributing to the broader world. That stake in the community was a source of strength that sustained me through the very hard times.

Next: What happens now, when the merry go-round of caregiving has stopped?

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Identity Crisis! (Again!) Part One

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma "house cooling" party, 2002

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma “house cooling” party, 2002

My Dad always said that he felt like he had several lives: his formative years up to joining the 5th Reserve Officer’s Commissioning Corps in the lead up to WWII, his career in the Marine Corps, his civilian life, living and working in the Pacific Northwest, and the 14 years of his life after Mom’s death.

Yesterday, my dental hygienist, Mary, observed that women have an easier time adjusting to old age because we go through so many physical changes in our lives: first raging hormone fluctuations and cramps as we enter adolescence; then the inflation of our bellies to near-alien proportions during pregnancy followed quickly by the transformation of our breasts into feeding machines; and finally a return to raging hormonal fluctuations accompanied by night sweats, belly fat that seems to reproduce overnight and the growth of random wiry hairs on our chin or necks. Even they never have children, women usually get two out of three of those changes.

Men, Mary holds, never face the ego challenges of appearance and body changes that women do. Their egos can’t take it when they go from captains of industry to invisible old men.

Mary may have it right as far as some men are concerned (although it certainly didn’t apply to my Dad). But I certainly took a blow to my identity and my ego when I retired to care for my Dad, and I know many caregivers who have gone through a similar transition. And now, with Dad newly gone, I am finding I am having to redefine myself – again.

Let me back up and talk about my initial transformation into retiree and caregiver.

I had lost my Mom to late stage lung cancer in 1999, and the words of her last lucid speech to me – from her hospital bed – echoed in my mind. After more than two weeks of being out of it, she began talking quietly to me about 9:45 p.m. I wrote her words as she slowly said them on a scrap of paper. For almost an hour she told me what I had meant to her, shared her reflections of me as a person, talked about the special importance of daughters, and asked how my Dad was “handling all of this,” taking in her surroundings with a glance. She said, “It is hard to say goodbye to people you love, but it is very important.” When I asked her what I could do for her, she said, “You can continue to be the marvelous woman that you are – competent, with a high level of activity. The world needs you.”

In 2004, I knew that time was marching on for my Dad. Just one year before, he suffered a major stroke, and I was all too aware of his cardiovascular surgeon’s prediction that Dad’s arteries would begin to clog after five years. Which was right about then.

Maddie was beginning her senior year and would soon be off to college. Tommy was in 7th grade, in the midst of a difficult adolescence.

Having already lost one parent, I was all too aware that this time with my Dad would never come again. I would be Maddie and Tommy’s Mom for many years to come, but the window of time to be a daughter, to enjoy my father, would close forever.

Much has been written of late about Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to “lean in.” For the first 10+ years of my career I leaned in. I didn’t lean in so hard that I was willing to permanently relocate to other cities (not feasible for my husband’s second-generation company), but I took every promotion I could. I started my MBA when Maddie was one year old, and I worked full time while I completed it. I made vice president in a major company by the time I was 33. I became president of my national professional society. I was recruited by a national company and got to write my job description for a senior level position at another.

After Tommy was born, I would have to say that my career advancement strategy resembled bobbing in and out more than leaning in. For three different companies, I built up enough credibility to cut back to part-time, all in search of the elusive work-life balance. Cutting back to part-time always came with a cost – and I am not referring to compensation. But I had the reputation, the access to leadership and professional skills to get done whatever I needed to get done. I respected the people who worked on my team, and loved supporting their development and careers.

When I resigned, I fully expected Dad would be gone within a few years and that I would return to the workforce after that.

Although I cleared my plate in readiness for Dad to move down, he was dragging his heels a bit. Maybe when it cooled off in Sacramento. Maybe in the spring. He eventually relocated in March of 2006.

Tomorrow: words to myself in June 2005, “The Journey Begins”

Ahead: what it was really like to transition from career to retired caregiver

Farther ahead: what it’s like to suddenly STOP being a caregiver after Dad’s death

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