When Mother's Day comes around, we often think about how our mothers helped to form how we "mother" our own children. We reflect on what it was that made Mom so special or perhaps what it was that we wished our moms could have done for us that they didn't. I've written before and thought very often about what I would adapt from my mother's parenting and what I wouldn't, but what I hadn't taken inventory of until now was how my mother shaped my internal view on what it means to be a woman. Very often, we think of ourselves as workers, spouses, sisters, children, and mothers, but do we stop to think about what it means to us to be a woman?
My mom was a stay-at-home mom for all four of her children until the youngest (that's me) hit kindergarten. My mom had attended college for art education but dropped out due to her inability to continue to pay for college, as well as because she was getting married. In the '60s, this was not an uncommon scenario. So when she returned back to work after having four children and without a college degree, she worked a late-night shift at a factory in which she returned home sometimes as late as 2 in the morning. It wasn't a glamorous job, but it was a sacrifice that had to be made because our family was having financial problems. Eventually she ended up landing a better career for her, but it didn't happen overnight.
Although my sisters were much older than I was and probably understood the impact of our financial troubles more than I did, I still remember when my mom went back to work and how much I missed her. I remember how guilty she felt. I vividly remember the stress that hung at the corners of our home and how much it affected my parents. To me, I learned that women, strong women, make necessary sacrifices without hesitation. That women grin and bear it and move forward, no matter what. My mom taught me that as a woman, I would someday have to make tough choices too and plow through. Here I am the mother of a 4-year-old plowing through the tough times: I am finalizing my divorce and, shortly thereafter, will lose our house. My mom's "lessons" on sacrifice and making it past the hard times are not lost on me.
We Are Our Own Voice
It wasn't unusual for us to debate matters like women's right to choose, workers' rights, and other issues that one might categorize as women's issues. Without a doubt, my mom embraced the idea that women should speak for themselves, rather than having men do the talking for them. And while she was vocal about politics and women's issues, she was also vocal about her feelings, as well as a great advocate and ear for other people, male or female, enduring any type of crisis. It was common to find people around my kitchen table talking to my mother; whether it was her friends or my teenage ones, my mom not only encouraged the people around her to talk, but she also offered an ear and some advice. Staying silent about how we felt or just "following" along with others were not things our mom wanted us to do. She didn't have to tell me this because I knew by example.
Speak Up, Because No One Will Speak For You
Being a woman means having the courage to raise your hand and say, "Yes, I have something to say," because when you speak, you encourage other women and people to stand up for what they believe in, no matter how big or small the topic.
Act Like Ourselves, Not by the Book
My mom never told us that we should "act like ladies" or be "good girls" in the way that many of my generation's and the generation before that's parents and authority figures spoke to girls. We were supposed to behave, you betcha, but we could be loud, goofy, and silly. We all had strong personalities, and instead of being told to fit in with the masses, my mom accepted us as is and tried to get the four of us siblings to accept and tolerate us "as is" as well. I never once felt I should act how others expect girls to be.
I still remember her co-worker from her first job. She would come and hang out with my mom and me during the day before work, and almost every time she left or came by, my mom would say, "She should come out of the closet," or encourage her friend to embody the person she really was, and not what she felt pressured to be. Being a woman didn't mean being heterosexual necessarily. My mom supported the fact that women can not only act like themselves with peers but also with themselves. Being honest about who you were and are with your own self is what women should do, and I know that from her.
And when the older boys down the street harassed and teased me and my childhood best friend, my mom didn't just tell us to ignore them like good girls. Oh no. Not my mom. She or one of her representatives — my siblings — would have a conversation with these "gentlemen" until they walked into their homes with their tails between their legs, as it should be. No, we weren't always "little ladies," and my mom showed us that women can be whatever we want to be — wallflower, boss, or eccentrics.
Equal? Sometimes, Better
My mom wasn't a man hater, but she drilled it into our minds that we could do anything we wanted to do, perhaps even better than a guy could. Even though I can't put in a screw to save my life, my mom did all the house repairs that she possibly could without hiring someone, worked, and managed the home and us single-handedly. Sure, our dad was around, but he worked like crazy and household duties were more "gendered" in my parents' generation. My mom was very often a one-woman show, and when you grow up watching a female leader, you believe you can lead no matter what others assume. We didn't think a woman would never become president. We wondered when she would.
No matter whether it was a cashier or a close friend, my mom was kind to others even if she shared her opinions. Everyone was treated the same even if you were a street hooligan kid, a successful CEO, or a janitor. Age, gender, race, and class didn't dictate how my mom treated others. I knew by watching my mother that women are and should be kind to all around them.
There are so many things that comprise what I believe a woman is and can be, as well as what a mother is and can be. Some of this I grasped from my own journey — my mom encouraged finding our own way — some from my mother, and some from inspiring women I have met along the way. I hope that one day my daughter can turn around and feel confident about who she is as a woman and then maybe pass that down to the next generation of women.