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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon Headshot

'Who Do You Call When You Have an Emergency?'

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Just before my 30th birthday, I found myself in an earth-toned office facing down a business school admissions officer.

"So," she said, her face assuming all the openness of a surgical mask, "Who do you call when you have an emergency?"

I looked back at her, puzzled. A few seconds of awkward silence passed as I processed her question. And then, suddenly, I saw myself the way she did: as a special case. For years, I had fought to hurl myself past the way I grew up. I stayed silent about the stories and the misadventures that separated me from nearly everyone I met in the soundproofed comfort of America's upper-middle and increasingly upper-only class. A place where people had no clue what a double coupon was -- or even that coupons ran every Sunday in the newspaper, a place where unpaid child support was an "important policy issue," not a personal problem and a path to eviction, and where a consignment shop was where your housekeeper brought your old clothes, not where your mom bought her new wardrobe.

I had passed for years as someone who came from that gilt-edged world, though initially, I did not understand their currency: education. I decided in my early 20s to pedigree myself and embarked upon a successful application spree of fellowships and jobs, starting with a Fulbright fellowship to Spain that opened my eyes to the Ivy League world of advanced degrees and overseas opportunities. But despite the sparkly titles I had won as an adult, I couldn't lie about where I had come from as a kid from Greenbelt, Maryland. And now, sitting in this sterile Washington office in an itchy, unlined suit with hot-rollered hair collapsing onto my shoulders, on my most daring application quest yet, I realized that I hadn't gotten anywhere.

I recalled the question on the application. In the blank spaces provided I had written "deceased" next to Mother and "N/A" next to Father. I realized that what I thought had been a harmless answer had actually hung a fat red flag over my autobiography.

I told my interviewer that I had never had to worry about who to call because I had come from a community of mothers where everyone looked out for one another. My godmother and my aunt and my mother formed a neighborhood of single moms who watched out for each other -- and their kids.

Their club was the opposite of exclusive. Headquartered on a nondescript block of a suburban condominium complex, its members assembled not for social connections, but economic survival. When someone needed a babysitter because work called or a cup of sugar because they hadn't had time to get to the store, the other mothers were there. When a car broke down on the side of the Beltway on the way to work, they were there. No questions and no quibbles. Out of homes others called "broken," they built a very complete community for all of us kids. And in the process, they taught us about the importance of hard work even when there was no glory, of sacrificing for the sake of the next generation even when the tasks were lousy, and of the power of perseverance even in the face of humiliating setbacks. Their values put family at the center of everything, because every move was driven by what was best for the future of their children. And now, as a parent in the rarified world of the one percent my mother fought so hard and wanted so desperately for me to join, their example informs every decision I make.

Economic crosswinds constantly buffeted our fragile world. My mother worked at the telephone company during the day and sold Tupperware at night. Evenings, she took classes when she could at University of Maryland's University College, bringing me along to do homework while she studied to get the degree she hoped would offer her and me greater opportunities. Life often intervened with her push for personal progress: My bout with the flu meant a lost promotion for my mother, dollars she had been counting on. She simply had missed too much work to take care of a sick kid she could not drop off at daycare at 7:30 a.m. The next time around, she took me to her office with her during the tail end of pneumonia, telling me to stay away from everyone and not tell a soul why I was sitting on the couch in her breakroom instead of at school. That year, she was promoted.

But whatever small step forward she took, my mother always knew that there was only one thing that would give me a better future, and in that she shared the view of families of far greater privilege: Education is key. In our case, she saw it as the only ladder up she could come close to reaching.

My mother never asked me whether I wanted to go to college, but told me I was going -- to the University of Maryland on an academic scholarship. And she made clear she would do whatever it took for me to get there. She never said it, but I knew it: She wanted me to be independent, to be able to make my own way no matter what came.

To send me to the area's best elementary school, one she thought would teach me as much as our local, oft-maligned school system could, my mother found a babysitter whose address lay within the school's boundaries. For years, we lied about where we lived. This was not a political statement for my mom -- she was a union Democrat who spent weekends holding signs for Maryland lawmakers Steny Hoyer and Barbara Mikulski -- but a parenting imperative and the only path she saw toward opportunity.

Years later, I understood this to be fraud. I read stories about parents just like my mother going to jail for trying to give their kids access to the best education. And now, as I make calls to help get my son into a prestigious, caring preschool that promises a brilliant education and watch friends ask friends who sit on private school boards to put in a word for their kids, I wonder what separates me and those I know now from my mother? The answer: money and relationships. It is universal: You do whatever you can for your children. Only some have a lot less. And when you don't have money and come from the wrong class, you use every other means available.

But our mothers taught us far more than the primacy of education. They were the original "and" women. At a time when so many people try to shove women's lives into an "either/or" category -- either a mother or a worker, either a parent or a professional, our mothers were many things all at once because they had to be. Breadwinner and tutor, housekeeper and caregiver, friend and disciplinarian. And they taught us that we could be, too. As kids, we never felt our mothers didn't love us because they went to work; we knew that they went to work because they loved us. Now, as a parent, I do not feel guilty as I make my own choices. And I do not think about whether I can have it all. I just get on with it, trying to follow the example of the mothers I grew up with, the "just get on with it" pioneers.

When people in the world of "haves" I now inhabit tell me that things are impossible or too hard to achieve, I think back immediately to the women I grew up with, single moms counted out by so many. And I am inspired by and grateful for their example. As my mother often told me in a matter-of-fact tone, "on a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three." The women I grew up with taught us to face down adversity, to be fearless in the face of bumps that would surely come and to embrace hard work.

On this Mother's Day, I think about the hard-working women who showed us that only our imaginations could determine our limitations. I am instructed by their values of family and fortitude. And I know there is no one in the world I would rather call when things go wrong -- or when things go well.