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.