There is a Jewish expression that says: “God could not be there all of the time; therefore he created mothers.” Oy. I blame the Talmudic scholars for creating the original Super Mom and all of the meshugas that goes along with it.
Today’s moms have it easier than our own moms in so many ways. Yet moms today seem so much more overwhelmed. Whatever decision we make we’re often left feeling guilty or conflicted. With a smorgasborg of choices available to us, motherhood has become much more complicated. Our mothers had fewer options, lower expectations and often a simpler life. For the most part, they had children in their 20s and then moved into their careers, or didn’t. They did things serially; we do them simultaneously with cell phones ringing, and the blue light of the BlackBerry beckoning. Technology has created a 24/7 work week with longer hours and no boundaries. No wonder why it just feels harder than it used to. It is.
My friend Angela, coincidentally a rabbi, told me that was struggling with how to balance her nutty schedule and care for her two small boys. She said that she felt like a failure because she clearly couldn’t juggle it all as effortlessly as her own mom had done. Angela’s mom apparently not only raised three children but taught English, founded the Korean women’s association, the Korean library and a Korean school in Seattle. She did all of that AND managed to be home by 5:30 pm and cook massive six-course Korean dinners each night. Angela could barely get the chicken nuggets in the toaster on time.
Most of us don’t want to become our mothers, but we can’t escape their influence. We see ourselves through the prism of our own mother’s experiences and it sweeps into every corner of our lives from career and family to a sense of self worth and identity.
On every birthday since I can remember, my mother has recited the dramatic story of my birth. As the story goes, after giving herself a pedicure, my mom got to the hospital just in the knick of time to deliver me. As they rushed her down the corridor to the operating room (in the days before plush delivery rooms), she called out to my dad who was unwrapping a cigar and settling in to watch a basketball game and announced, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to have a baby!” But after she delivered me in the pioneering style of natural childbirth sans epidural, she changed her mind. She swears I was the most beautiful baby in the world and it was love at first sight.
But soon after arriving, I stopped breathing. Obviously, I survived and they let my mom take me home from the hospital but warned that if I cried I could suffocate to death. My dramatic birth tale is always punctuated by my 22-year-old mother leaving the hospital wearing her Hot Pants (it was 1971). Apparently, her waistline had contracted to its pre-pregnancy size in a matter of days.
So my mom’s life’s work for the nine months until I healed was making sure that I didn’t cry. She held me and rocked me and didn’t leave my side. Wow…that mother-daughter love story is hard stuff with which to compete.
So it is not surprising that when thirty years later after I had a somewhat less enthusiastic reaction to the birth of my son, I felt like something was wrong with me. My colicky, non-sleeping baby was tough to bond with. And I felt guilty. But while I stressed about breast feeding versus soy formula and organic food (yes, my mom made her own baby food) what I didn’t agonize over, was going back to work.
This was probably because my mom always worked. She was a teacher and a realtor and then went to law school when I was in high school. Divorced and a single mom for many years, my mom showed me that taking financial responsibility for your life was probably the most important way to protect yourself. So I never questioned whether or not I would work – I knew I had to and yes, I wanted to.
The research shows that the guilt factor about working and how we see ourselves as working moms is largely shaped by whether or not our own mothers worked and there is a strong correlation between wanting to work if your mom had worked. But it can work both ways. Some stay-at-home moms say they chose this path because they had wished that their working moms were the ones at home with the fresh baked cookies on the kitchen table after school. While I respected my mom for going to law school, my little sister (9 years younger) resented her absence and begged my mom to get a minivan like the other cool moms who spent their days playing tennis while our mother was schlepping to court.
For good and bad our mothers are powerful role models. And while the 1980s Super Mom who broke her high heels while flying our of the house in her shoulder padded pant suit jacket may not be the most attractive image we want to project on our own kids, showing our children that a career makes us happy, pays the bills and is an important part of our identity is healthy. And when I watch my kids play house and my daughter puts on my boots and throws her pocketbook over her shoulder, kisses her baby doll and says, “I love you…I’m off to work,” I feel like I’m doing something right.