My First, Best Role Model

My mother is gone. She died earlier this month at the age of 93. So much can be said about this blessedly singular woman: her love of family, her desire to look forward in life, her joyful smile and ready laugh. Unlike many women of her generation, she was also a true working mother, a model of what it means to live a life you create for yourself.

My mother was 40 when I was born, incredulous at the thought of having another child when she already had two teenagers at home. Prior to her pregnancy she worked part-time at a local pharmaceutical manufacturer, Warner-Chilcott, to help save money for my parents’ first home. She clearly impressed her bosses for about 18 months after my birth they contacted her to work at the parent company, Warner-Lambert. She was torn. She wanted to work but leaving a young child behind was scandalous at the time. In stepped my widowed grandmother who offered to care for me at home. My grandmother, like her daughter, was a trailblazer who never considered gender a valid reason to say no to opportunity.

My mother loved her job, loved being out in the world and loved interacting with people who came from various backgrounds and life experiences. A piece of her came alive at work. She never crowed about her successes or complained about her circumstances if things did not go well. She taught me that you put in a good, solid day and go home at night to tend to those you love. She illustrated the principle of work-life balance long before the term existed. With time and effort, she fashioned a career, progressing from the secretarial pool to becoming lead traffic manager in the company’s art and advertising department.

Work fit her. It gave her a forum to grow, to increase her sense of competency beyond the role of wife and mother, and to express her kindness and support of others. Some of my best childhood memories come from the times I went into the office with her. She would proudly show me her well-tended workspace and all that was waiting to be done, and then take me around to see the workspaces and offices of her coworkers. Those spaces, and the people in them, were as important to her as her own. Her coworkers were an extension of her family and I often heard more about the people she worked with – their lives, their families, their ups and downs – than any project or accolade she had won. These people made her career meaningful, and they helped her heal after my father’s quick and frightening death from lung cancer.

There were times, though, when she questioned the impact her career had on me. She felt apprehension over not being like my schoolmates’ mothers and guilt that her decision to work had labeled me as different. She struggled with the path she chose. The truth is I felt nothing but pride in being her daughter. She was a woman who made her way in the world at a time when conformity was the currency of suburban life. If I was different than my schoolmates, it was a distinction I wore happily. I was loved without reservation by her and blessed to have a mother who gave me an alternative example of womanhood.

As I think about her now, it comes clear that her work life taught me so much about self realization, about life’s second and third acts, and about how, even in quiet ways, you can live by your own terms. We give so many lessons to our children and we are not always sure what those lessons are. My mother, Rosina, gifted me the lesson of how to construct a multi-dimensional life. You simply open your own door, walk boldly across the threshold, and discover all that is of value in yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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