My grandmothers had hard lives. They left their families in the “old country” at an age when girls today are just getting braces for their teeth, traveled by themselves on long ocean voyages to live with people they had never met, worked in sweat shops, married young, and spent much of their time cooking and cleaning while their children raised themselves. In my memory, they were always old.
My mother was denied a college education because her father claimed, “girls don’t need that.” She married young and raised three baby boomer children in a loving but modest home (in those days, one bathroom was enough for a family of five). She didn’t drive or own a car until we moved to a suburb of Detroit and the only job I remember her having when we were growing up was selling Avon products when we were all in school.
Mom dutifully attended all school performances, parent-teacher conferences, and PTA meetings. She kept our home clean and organized and had a home-cooked meal on the table every night at 6:00. She was not a chauffeur, play date arranger, tutor, or advocate for her children. We grew up without lessons or preschool. We played with whatever children lived on our block. She never checked our homework. And schools and teachers were always respected and assumed to be right.
So what did my intelligent and well read but under-educated mother want for me? She expected me to go to college, find a profession that gave me “something to fall back on” (namely become a teacher), marry upon leaving college, and start a family ASAP – all of which I did.
When I raised my three children, it was possible for a middle class family to live comfortably on one income and buy a home. Most of my friends, women I met at parks, in my neighborhood, or at my children’s preschools and elementary schools, had given up their careers “to fall back on.” We fell back on being good PTA moms, taking our kids to some lessons, organizing playgroups, monitoring schools and homework assignments, and keeping our homes somewhat organized with some home-cooked meals appearing at regular intervals.
Family dinners were the norm. Most dads came home between 6:00-7:00 pm and there were no lessons or sporting events scheduled for those hours. Weekends were totally family time. My kids did not play on any teams that demanded a huge chunk of their time. My son could participate in tennis or math team without it being a big time commitment. My daughters, even though they were dedicated figure skaters, could balance this with free weekends and other after school commitments and still be home for dinner.
And what did I want for my daughters? I raised them with Free to be You and Me and feminist stories like The Practical Princess. I expected them to go to college and beyond, if necessary, to find careers that interested them. And, like the good Jewish mother I am, I also hoped they would fall in love (when the time was right) and have children (when the time was right).
Looking back, I wonder if this plan make life better for my daughters. I’m not so sure. Like most mothers today, they judge themselves harshly, and struggle to find the elusive balance between work and childrearing. If the business world is not family-friendly, if quality child care is too expensive or hard to find, if both parents must work long hours to maintain a middle class standard of living, if working part time means going without decent health care…then moms just have to work harder. Anna Quinlan referred to this attitude as “manic motherhood” – a phenomenon in which mothers lead lives “somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon.”
Modern motherhood, with its exploding volumes of information and free internet advice, coupled with the demands of working, can squeeze all of the simple joys out of being a parent. I fear I sold my daughters a bill of goods by telling them that they could “have it all.” As I wish them a Happy Mothers Day, I hope the gains women have made since my own mother was deprived of a college education will make them happy as well as accomplished mothers.
My Mothers Day wish for my daughters, daughter-in-law, and all moms is for a day filled with peace and the simple joys of spending the day with their own children.