I will never forget a cartoon I once saw in the New Yorker. It featured a mother and daughter sitting at a kitchen table with the daughter saying to the mother, “I hardly feel like I need you now that I can make myself feel guilty.” I could identify. No, I didn’t mail it to my mother. But, yes, I did think of her.
My mother was as a housewife, which I hold in no disrespect. I liked her being there when I came home from school. Looking back it was pretty idyllic. She sometimes even baked cookies so that they’d be warm when I got home. I know she did the best job she could as a mother. I respect the path she chose and happen to have chosen differently myself. I never imagined myself staying home.
I was raised to be somewhere in between my mother and what I’ve become. Well, not exactly in between. I was raised to be more like my mother – to work, but work part-time, because I was also raised to have children and be a good wife, etc. I wasn’t raised to have a desire to consistently achieve more professionally, to want to work my way to the top. At least that was never the interpretation of my childhood. I was raised to be pleasant and polite – to be nice. To always send out birthday cards on time. To return favors with homemade cookies. To be put together. To know better than to wear skirts that exceeded the hem of my coat. To remove chipped nail polish and comport myself as a lady. Did my parents explicitly say that I was not to work full-time or that it wasn’t becoming to be too assertive? No, not directly. But no working girl would have the time to accomplish all of the niceties I was raised to believe were of paramount importance.
Just as I will not forget the cartoon, I will not forget that a few years into my professional life my mother once remarked, “You’re not as nice as you used to be.” I don’t think she only meant I wasn’t as “nice” as I used to be in “the way Jane Austen’s Emma is always visiting her neighbors” nice. My mother was implying: I was no longer as innocent as I used to be. Not as easily shocked by behavior my mother would categorize as “unbecoming.”
To achieve my mother’s kind of nice would have meant choosing not to participate in my world and finding one more similar to hers. It would have meant not working at companies that had lay-offs, mergers, and scrambles to the top. Nice would have meant always giving people the benefit of the doubt, even after evidence suggested otherwise, and always assuming that colleagues and managers would consider my interest equal to theirs. Working, to my great disappointment, had taught me otherwise. No matter what had happened at the Holiday party, I had seen that work was seldom my mother’s brand of nice.