Two nights after I interviewed my mom about motherhood, I woke up from a deep sleep where I’d dreamt I was pregnant with twins. Well, hm. The interview was for a Mother’s Day post about identity before and after becoming a mom. Interesting timing.
Like 76.3 percent of women who worked full time in 2016, my mom was a working woman. (That percentage was 73.6 in 1986 when she became a mom.) I’d always thought of her as a professional first. Dressed in pressed suits and squarish pumps, the faint click-clack of her heels downstairs as she moved about, jumpstarting everyone’s morning while my two sisters and I were still rolling over in our beds. Her tailored trench coat, the kind with the shoulder pads to create a silhouette that could compete with a man’s. A glossy leather briefcase that looked just like Dad’s only smaller and sleeker. And the killer black bob with bangs, professional and painfully stylish. She looked the part and she played it, too, in a development role at the university in town. She seemed to know everyone in the community, and everyone knew her work supporting education and the arts. As young as 8, I remember feeling surges of pride to hear other grown-ups talk about my mom and her growing list of successes.
I knew, too, from a young age, that becoming a mom for my mother was something she had changed her mind about.
The day following the interview, an email with the subject line “We were married four years before we had our first child” appeared in my inbox. It was prose about the time my parents were happily tethered to each other but free from parental duties. They were young professionals, they had a close circle of friends from work, they took trips, and they were madly in love. It sounded a lot like the life I had, only without a partner. Sure, once they had kids, Dad went back to school while working full time and she lost touch with her friends (all tied to her professional network) when she took leave to be at home with two babies. She experienced what was undiagnosed postpartum; even so—she had no regrets. But my mom was nervous about sharing the information that she hadn’t always wanted to be a mother.
“I didn’t realize how much of my self-identity was tied to my professional persona,” she emailed in follow-up.
“I like that part of your identity,” I texted her. “That you were whole as a professional woman and you didn’t need to be a mother to feel whole. And didn’t want to be a mother until you found that fulfillment. Don’t you think that might be why you changed your mind?”
She replied with a joke congratulating me on my imaginary twins. And as I chuckled I thought about how I’m the same age she was when she had me. Perhaps we’d both wanted something we didn’t have. I asked her how her life would look if she hadn’t had kids.
Maybe more career moves, maybe in different cities. They probably would have traveled more.
“But those are little things. None of that is a sacrifice at all.”
She’d loved everything about becoming a mother. Being pregnant, natural childbirth, nursing. She found it all empowering. And she taught us as girls and women that we were equally entitled to just as much as boys and men.
“I wanted you to have that leg up, I wanted you to have that sense of confidence because I know how easy it is to have that beaten down in just small little ways in everyday situations.”
Confidence. Drive. She taught us that in the way she built her career. Financial independence. She taught us that in the way she earned half the family income as if every woman’s dollar was equal to a man’s.
If my mom hadn’t shouldered her share of the family’s financial responsibilities, would I be financially independent? If she hadn’t parented with the identity as a, you know, individual person and professional who also decided to become a mother, would balancing career and kids seem not only possible but actually fulfilling to her daughters? I doubt it. When motherhood is a choice, it is both a commitment and a privilege. My case is one of many privileges as a kid in a white, educated, middle-class family. My mother was a good one because she transferred the identity of being a professional from her career to our futures. Which part of all that caused some small sense of guilt for not identifying as a mother all along? She did the best thing a mother of young girls can do. She gave her daughters a dossier on what a woman’s identity as an individual looks like. That has nothing—and everything—to do with motherhood. And then she layered a new identity on top of the old one.
“I don’t have any regrets. I’m glad I changed my mind,” she said. “Our children have enriched our lives in so many ways. Each child has taught us in their own way and given us a different experience, and I can’t imagine my life without kids.”