05/14/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2013

Women's Studies: A Mother's Day Étude

I've always been what they call a "daddy's girl," and proud of it. "Daddy's girl" sounds smart, game, and winning. Daddy's girls know how to wrap stern men around their little fingers, cleverly winning smiles from curmudgeons. They know how to catch a busy man's eye. But it's so much more than that. It's drive and it's direction. It's shiny cars and client lists. Studies show that women who've been encouraged by their fathers are more "successful" in life -- that these are the women who achieve the most status, money, and power.

And to all the above I now say: Huh? My father was a hero who saved lives at Dachau concentration camp, where he himself was imprisoned. He was athletic, charismatic, driven, brilliant. Androgen was his middle name, and even though I had a brother, he chose me as his heir. But heir to what? War brings heroes; in times of peace, medals go to the champs. As an immigrant in a land of opportunity, my father wanted me to be the "best." The best grades, the best schools, the best career, the best job in the best career. Grades and awards were my ribbons and medals. I was the Olga Korbut of academia, rising to the ranks of Yale Law School's women (fewer than 80 eager souls in my year), later choosing to work at one of the toughest firms on Wall Street. And I did so as a corporate litigator -- law's answer to the gritty neurosurgeon. Pounding out pointless, hostile briefs, hazed with humiliating tests of grit: Machismo was my badge of excellence. Would you work through night for days on end? Would you travel on weekends? Would you check your mail on vacation? Would you be willing, if called upon, to miss your grandpa's funeral? How proud I was to salute these absurdities, to be as good as any man. Oh, I leaned in with all my might, as any great gal would.

When you lean over too hard, you fall. And that's the great thing. Because over the years, I've realized that there is no "best," that there is no "power," that there is no "success" absolute, and that we Daddy's girls are teetering on our too-high heels for a reason. We're not too weak to make the grade. We just might not want to go along with the pretense that there is a "grade" to make. Let's take the foot gear off and feel terra firma.

How ridiculous it is to want to be better than anyone else. How ordinal, how childish, how unkind not only to others but to ourselves. Armor and armaments are clumsy tools with which to grasp the complexity and rich loaminess of life. How dumb it is to prove we're tough, when it's our hearts -- our very human sensibilities -- that could change the world entire. Yes, I left the law. I became a writer -- no sure success there -- and I had children - no sure success there, either. In real life, there are no grades but your character, no finish lines but mortality. And women have always been there at those critical points -- teachers and nurses and nannies and mothers. They've had the time for all this vagueness, this very vital, tender, winding course.

I know this now that both my parents are gone. I wrote a memoir called The Watchmaker's Daughter, and despite the title, the process of composing this book opened my eyes to our common paternalistic folly. While my father was more than glorious, my mother -- whose career as a concert pianist was aborted by the Nazis -- was equally so. Her nimble hands were as willing to shell peas as to pound romantic chords. She was the one who fought for our small joys, running up and down the hills with her grocery wagon in a search for the perfect tomato. She was the one who did errands for her brilliant husband, breathless up and down the midtown avenues, so that he could take pride in being one of the world's premiere watchmakers. In talking about my mother, I often quote Grey's elegy, the lines that say: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air." She was that flower, and after her death I saw her and I felt her sweetness. None of it was wasted.

At the end of her life, my mother had hoped to take some courses on "Women's Studies." My father was gone by then, and I supposed she wondered why she in his absence she felt like what she called "a nothing," how the world seemed to mock her decades of service. She could still play Chopin so beautifully it could make you see stars outside and candlelight within, yet no one was listening in the concert hall. But I was listening all my life, and the music swells even louder now. I am my mother when I think of others instead of only myself. I am her girl when I make art that may not be adored, but make it anyway, or when I love my children with no expectation of reward but their happiness. I am my mother when I write about her even though she is not here -- when I write out of what is now an unrequited love. Her name was Gita Were-Bey, and she could teach that course on Women's Studies any day.

This Mother's Day, I have one humble wish: that we realize that we are "Mommy's Girls" (and even "Mommy's Boys") and that we do so not with shame but pride. That touch of grace cannot be graded, measured, or ranked -- but that's true of all the best things. One day a year is not enough to acknowledge or emulate the heart of motherhood. It may take a lifetime to get that bouquet, and Gita, here is yours.