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Decades before Marissa Mayer installed a fully-functional nursery beside her CEO office and before Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “lean in,” my mother achieved her own perfect work-life balance: 0% work, 100% life. I was well into my adulthood before my mother held her first job, working at a department store to bring in a little extra cash. Before then, she was the epitome of the “stay-at-home mom”.

To be clear: I never thought, then or now, that taking care of a home and five children wasn’t demanding, worthwhile, or exhausting, and I believe that any work-life balance discussion should hinge on the fair availability of choices to both women and men, not on judgments of the relative values of such choices. So I never thought of my mom as “merely” a stay-at-home mom. We were a straight-up working class family, but the kids were all safe and well fed, and we grew up polite and respectful and more open-minded than a lot of more “privileged” people I would later meet at Harvard, and I give both my parents the credit for that. But I certainly couldn’t help noticing, especially as I grew older and met friends’ moms who were employed, that my mom was increasingly unusual, although apparently quite content, in being only a stay-at-home mom.

Mom and me

Mom and me

I’ve written before about my father and his career and how it affected my assumptions about work as I was growing up, and as Mothers’ Day approached I began to consider whether my mother’s career had also affected my outlook on work. As I played with the idea, it occurred to me that perhaps I was making an unwarranted assumption. Perhaps my mom wasn’t content as a stay-at-home mom. What if she had had a particular ambition as a teenager, one that she had chosen to abandon when she married my dad and then spawned us? How tragic would that be? My mom, a secretly frustrated ballerina or closet biochemist, hiding her light under a bushel for the sake of her kids. I had to find out the truth. Perhaps, even now, it wasn’t too late for her to begin anew!

So I called and asked her. When she was young, was there something she had dreamed of doing? Something she had never done because she’d been a housewife all her life?

No, she said. Not at all. In fact, she reminded me – for I had heard this part before – she and my father had started dating when they were 14 years old, and she knew then that all she wanted to do was marry him and take care of him and their home and their children.

That seemed a little anticlimactic to me. No ambition at all? No unfulfilled dreams? Where’s the drama in that? My mind played it out, anxiously starting to regret my commitment to writing a special Mothers’ Day post. Maybe a lack-of-ambition theme? Maybe if my mom had been a little less content, I might have been the one to create Facebook, except twenty years earlier, so I would also have had to create the Internet, too. Thanks to my mom’s serenity, Zuckerberg and Gore reaped all the rewards. Mom!

Meanwhile, as I pondered, my mother continued her story. She was explaining why she knew she would marry my dad. One day the comic wrapped inside her piece of Bazooka bubble gum included a fortune that read, “You will have two false starts before you get what you really want.” See, before she met my dad, she dated these two other losers –- one guy from her school who turned out to be a jerk, and another guy who went AWOL and disappeared -– and that’s how she knew that my dad was going to be the keeper.

Aha! The magic telegram! Had she told me this story when I was young, and maybe I had forgotten it? But I had remembered the message: someday Fate will deliver a mystical sign, and from then on, your life will be perfect! How many years had I wasted, waiting for the magic telegram to be delivered, rather than exploring the world and discovering myself what my perfect job would –-

Wait a minute. Did she say “AWOL”? Was my 14-year-old mom dating someone in the military?

Mom snorted. Yes, she had been, because her mother didn’t care what my mom or her brothers and sisters got up to. They could run around chasing whoever they wanted, as far as my grandmother was concerned, because that’s basically what she did all her life. And then my mother went on to remind me about some of the things she had told me about my grandmother, and to tell me a few more startling things that she’d never mentioned to me before. Oh, I had grown up knowing that my mother and her mother didn’t get along – as kids, we saw my paternal grandmother every couple of weeks, but we visited my mother’s mother maybe five times in my whole life – and when I’d reached adulthood my mom explained enough for me to understand that, while my grandmother obviously liked something about the process of conception enough to have had seventeen children, by fathers who came and went, it wasn’t the childrearing she enjoyed. She was absent from their lives often enough for the siblings to have essentially raised each other, with the support of a kind-hearted neighbor or two.

Now, on the phone, my mother was providing me with additional details about the extent of the neglect, and about the effects that it had on her brothers and sisters. Bad things happened. Some of the family – the uncles and aunts I remember visiting regularly as a child – stood up in the face of them, stood up for their younger brothers and sisters, and carved paths through the wilderness to reach safe and sane adulthood. Others, mostly the ones I never knew well, surrendered under the weight of the neglect and succumbed to various forms of dissolution, one daughter even echoing her mother’s footsteps.

I was not expecting stories like this to come out in our conversation. But then I realized: she was just answering the question I had asked. I don’t think she realized it consciously, but she was. “When she was young, was there something she had dreamed of doing?” She had said “no”, because the way I had asked the question was flawed, but the answer was obviously “yes”. She had dreamed of being a mother unlike her own mother. She had dreamed of being there for all of her children, of keeping them safe and well fed, of teaching them to be polite and respectful and open-minded, and of caring enough about what her children got up to, to let them know when it was wrong. To her, “stay-at-home” was what made her the mom she wanted to be, because her mother never did.

Happy Mothers’ Day to everyone out there whose mothers – stay-at-home or go-to-work – gave them the gifts of security, discretion, and care. Let your mothers know you are as grateful as I am to have been given the foundation of stability and self-worth that makes it possible to even have career ambitions. And to those, hopefully few, people reading this who suffered from the kind of parental neglect my mom suffered from: know that, like my mother, you can still give to someone else the gift you never received yourself.