I started working for women's magazines at the age of 27 and, like any good 27-year-old editorial assistant, immediately began making sweeping assumptions about the women above me on the editorial food chain. One of my biggest assumptions was that a woman could not successfully manage both a magazine and a marriage. And just forget about raising well-adjusted children.
Alas. As with so many things in life, in turns out that I had no idea what I was talking about. Now, years later, I seem to have experienced a role (model) reversal: after working for women I thought--in my naiveté and lack of experience--were "bad" mothers, I've turned into exactly the sort of mother I said I would never be.
I have worked for some tough broads in my day. Women who are respected and feared; women who don't suffer fools lightly, who brook no opposition, who don't take no for an answer. Women who are at the top of their game, who eat people like you for breakfast. Women who belittle others in public, just for sport; women who yell at you or look through you; women who have mastered the wordless, humiliating dismissal. It has not always been fun working for tough broads, but I've learned more than a few useful lessons. Including, I thought, precisely how not to be a mother.
For a number of years in my 20s and early 30s I worked for a woman who is universally regarded as terrifying, both by those who have worked for her and those who haven't. One day I was in her office when she was on the phone with her teenage daughter. The daughter apparently didn't like what Mom had to say because she hung up on her. The teenage daughter, hanging up on the Most Terrifying Person in the World! It was a thrilling moment for me, on so many levels. Not to mention a significant signal that my terrifying boss was a Bad Mother; if she didn't work so hard and were not generally such a difficult person, she would have a better relationship with her daughter, who would never, ever hang up on her.
And then I had a teenager. And one day I picked up the phone to talk to him while I was in the middle of a meeting in my office, and told him something he did not want to hear. And he hung up on me. But we have a great relationship! And I am not a bad mother.
For a few years in my 30s I worked for a woman who is pretty much universally regarded as a world-class slave driver. One night I was sitting behind her in a darkened room in Texas, watching a focus group. As I looked on in amazement, some underling handed her a faxed stack of papers, which happened to be her daughter's homework. Still half-listening to the focus group participants talk about our magazine, she began methodically going through the faxed sheets, correcting her daughter's work. Oh, how sad, I thought. If she didn't work so hard and spent more time at home, she would not have to help her daughter with homework, by fax, from halfway across the country.
And then one day I was on a business trip when my son's report card came out. He faxed it to my hotel, with a note and a smiley face drawn on the bottom of the page. But, of course, I am usually at home when the report cards come out! And I am not a bad mother.
Growing older is a humbling process, and not just because every year you are a bit less vital and arguably less attractive than you were the year before. No, each new year brings with it the greater understanding that you hardly know anything about anything. Including working, motherhood, and what being a "good" mother really means. Now I am a mother of three and run a magazine that is staffed by a number of women who have children, most younger than mine. I wonder how they judge me as a mother. When I leave the office at 5:30 to have dinner with my kids, do they think I am setting a good example, or not working hard enough? When I interrupt a meeting to take a cell phone call from my son, are my coworkers amused, or annoyed? When I send one of them an email before 6 a.m., do they realize I am just getting work done when I can, or do they think I'm psychotic? I couldn't say, and they're certainly not going to tell me. As my former bosses no doubt knew, what has worked for me may never work for my colleagues. Everyone must forge her own path through the briar patch of motherhood, and you've got to find the thorns for yourself.
Last night I was at a company party with another former boss, this one a man. He was telling me that my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness, which is that I'm stubborn, I know my own mind, and I always think I have the right answer. He went on to say that people would probably describe him similarly; I disagreed. "I'm just older," he said. "I think you mean wiser," I replied. In other words, he knows what he doesn't know. Where motherhood is concerned--and, honestly, so, so many other things--I am still learning that lesson. With each passing year, with each new boss, with each new stage of my children's development, I know just a little bit less.