It's all a matter of self-definition. My mother defined herself as mother and housewife. And I defined myself as professional.
The first question my mother would ask after being introduced to a friend of mine was, "Is she married?" In all fairness she would ask this of men as well as women. The person could be an important politician or a dedicated social worker, but she saw them through the prism of family. In contrast, I would try to discover, "What does he or she do?" (I wouldn'tusually ask this outright. I knew that reducing a person to profession is as dehumanizing as reducing them to race or nationality. But this was really what what I wanted to know.)
When I grew up, professionalism was in the air My mother, on the other hand, was born in Poland in 1913 and felt as most women of her times, that a "woman's place was in the home Who would want to grow up to such labor and hardship? There was no glamor in such work, no career. There were no MBA' s awarded my Grandmother for the business sense to keep her family alive.
How could it have been otherwise? When I grew up, professionalism was in the air. It was emerging as the new class structure. We lived with the illusion of a merit soociety. Education could make you whatever you desired,a doctor or lawyer or great scientist. And women were beginning to buy into this dream. I grew up reading about women doctors and scientists, ballet dancers and actresses, finally settling on the books about women writers. There were no books about being a housewife. Or none thhat I chose to read.
My mother, on the other hand, was born in Poland in 1913 and felt as most women of her times, that a "woman's place was in the home." But even more than that, she witnessed the struggle of a woman earning a living. My grandfather had gone ahead to America a few months after she was born, planning to bring the family soon afterward. But fate played havoc with their plans.And World War I broke out, separating the family for six more years. How terrifying it must have been for my mother as a young child at the dawn of consciousness watching my grandmother struggle alone to support six children in a country ravished by war and revolution. My grandmother working from early in the morning milking cows and peddling the dairy products until late at night when she'd prepare the cheeses, her head drowsy as she squeezed the sour milk in the cheese cloth Who would want to grow up to such labor and hardship?
There was no glamor in such work, no career. There were no MBA's warded my Grandmother for the business sense to keep her family alive. When the family arrived in America, my mother was eight years old, able to assume the normal life of a school child. She must have felt grateful that she was no longer left alone with her siblings in the dark house in the village in Poland. She must have felt relieved that her mother was no longer out peddling cheese and butter, but was safely home scrubbing her immaculately- kept home,rolling out egg noodles, baking sugar cookies. In spite of academic success in high school, my mother could desire no other role for herself. College meant "being too smart" and frightening off the prospective husband, becoming Heaven forbid, a spinster teacher. All this she would later warn me. In any case, it was the time of the Depression and who could afford to go to college? The thing to do was to find a job until the right guy came along, and in the meantime, have a good time, dancing the Charleston on the weekends, grinding the phonograph in my grandparents living room, while my stern, resourceful grandmother worried about the frivolities of young Americans. They too had her differences. My mother was proud of her eldest daughter's row of E's (for Excellent) and even S's (for Superior) on her Report Cards. But never dreamed that it would lead to anything but a secure, (and more affluent) home in the suburbs. Arrogant child that I was, my mother belonged to a less enlightened world. Her goals seemed narrow, horizons tautly stretched to fit her family reality.
She feared for me. Would I ever be able to marry? She also felt left behind, as her mother had felt watching her dance the Charleston.
This continued for many years, even when I did marry and had children of my own. I also grew as a journalist. She never discussed my articles, indicated pride in my accomplishments. She read the magazines, but was more excited about my cooking and cleaing than a perceptive book review. Professional hierarchies structured my value system. Nurturing structured hers. When my sister was dying of cancer, she enjoined her to eat, made her soup, send her pizza which, in happier days, my sister would have happily devoured. The last thing my sister said to her before going into a coma was "Thanks for the pizza. I really enjoyed it." She was thanking her for the love and nurturing. Over the years, both of us have grown annd changed. Today, I think we can appreciate each other more. My own children, often benignly neglected, have come to dominate my consciousness to the exclusion of much else, have liberated me from my professional narcissism. I too am often tempted to ask upon meeting someone, "Is she married?" "Does she have children?"
Today I can discuss recipes with my mother, and gossip about members of the family. And I realize that she isn't as narrow and homebound as I had once tagged her. In my own need to establish a separate identity, to define myself contra to her, I had ignored the fact that for many years she had worked (certainly harder than I ever had to, ) side by side with my father in the coffee shop he owned, carrying his dinner in a shopping bag on two Chicago street cars to arrive there in the late afternoon, and remain until it closed at ten. And while my father was a man of few words, she created a little social club with the "regulars" who would frequent the shop. She befriended the truck-drivers listened to their problems. I came to realize that she knew a world far broader than mine. And had become their in-house psychologist. It was natural to her, part of the nurturing. With time her opinions changed too. And I realized that at seventy, eighty, she had more capacity for growth than many of my friends at thirty, forty. fifty. An openness to new trends, ideas. She recently declared,"I think it's good that women work outside the home after all." On another occasion she admitted that it was difficult for her when my father retired, sold the coffee shop.
She liked being involved with the outside world. In her mid-eighties she continues, however, to be the family social worker, psychologist. Nephews and nieces as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to call for her advice. How she has grown since my teens when I locked her in a narrow cage of my brain!
Where was I all those years that I didn't see it? Who today can be called the liberated Mother?