About 25 years ago, my mother asked me, “What do you want, a career?” While emphasizing the word career, my appalled mother shook her head in disbelief.
My mother never worked outside the home, and at that time many women were not encouraged to do so. She had the same limited expectations for her daughter, but she never took into consideration that we were different people and that my spirit screamed for more from the very second that I was aware of the world around me.
She didn’t raise me to pursue a college education nor to be a professional in any field. Rather, when I left for the university, she reminded me to return with my M.R.S. Degree, suggesting I study at the law or medical libraries to find a suitable husband pursuing one of these stable occupations.
Once when I asked her whether she ever wanted to work, she reminded me of the times in which she grew up, “Women just didn’t do that.” I’ll never know whether she secretly wanted to create her own place outside of our house instead of shouldering the domestic responsibilities of taking care of her husband and children.
Different Generation, Different Choices
My mother was probably the last generation of women who were not expected nor encouraged to financially contribute to the household, and in turn, they swallowed the few secret desires they might have had for themselves. Of course, there were many women who did work during the late 1940s and 50s and 60s. I knew a couple of female relatives and family friends who had jobs, however, by the time I was interested in their innermost thoughts about their working lives, they had passed.
While my mother created delicious meals from her multiple, almost-daily trips to the market, she must have been frustrated. Her keen intellect, voracious reading, and love of art and music could have served her well in many chosen professions.
I often envisioned her attending the university and I lamented that I couldn’t save her a seat next to me in my various courses. Sadly, it was a world she would never know but one in which she would have excelled. I felt sad for this loss of which she was never fully aware.
The Need for Independence
True to form, as I left for college, along with the reminder to find a husband, Mother warned me not to work in the same way that some mothers remind their daughters to study hard. It was not surprising, then, that within my first few months at the university, I sought employment, my internal rebellion in response to my mother’s words of caution.
She was terribly annoyed with me, wondering why I had defied her through my part time work. She did not understand my need for independence and my desire to create a space for myself in the world any more than I could understand her choice to spend so many hours watching soap operas in her bedroom.
In fairness to her, her main concern for me was that I was working too hard while adjusting to my studies and living away from home — from her — for the first time. Her biggest fear of all was that I would not take care of myself and would get sick, which is exactly what happened.
Within six months, I contracted mononucleosis and of course my mother reminded me of her initial warning, “See? I told you not to get a job. That’s why you got sick. Too much running around.”
While I was forced to stop working and drop two classes in my recuperation, against my mother’s better judgment, I resumed my job when my health improved. I appreciated my hard-earned semi-financial and emotional autonomy despite the generosity of my parents paying for my tuition and my personal needs.
Becoming Fulfilled and Alive
And, from this very first job that I was never supposed to desire, I never stopped working, whether it was a summer selling clothing or inputting class schedules at a computer terminal in the registrar’s office during the academic year. When I graduated and got married, I also obtained my first teaching job as a graduate student.
When our children were very young, I worked part time at nights for over a decade so that my husband could be home with them after his full day at work. After our family dinner together, I drove off to the nearby community college to teach English to my ESL students.
I came alive during my evening classes, for despite my exhaustion, I transformed from a mommy into a professional. I loved my students and sought the emotional feedback of adults who desperately needed language skills taught by someone who equally needed to be recognized outside of the motherhood. My mother continued to be perplexed as to why I chose to have such a busy life; I viewed it at as a fulfilling one.
I Am Who I Am Because Of You
And, while my mother complained about my hectic schedule of work and motherhood, I could occasionally peek through her frustration and see elements of pride. She never understood my need to work, yet she respected my hard-earned degrees and awards.
Every once in a while I dream of a conversation between us; perhaps it would go something like this:
Good for you. You did what you wanted. You worked hard and made a difference in the world. I am glad you have had the career for which you worked so hard. I am glad you feel you have added to society. I would like to think that some of your dedication and commitment to your career over the years has had something to do with me. I am happy you did what I never was able to do.
And then I respond:
Yes, Mom. Despite our challenges and limitations in understanding each other, you also gave me many gifts and because of everything, I am the woman I am today. Thank you!
When Will I Be Good Enough?: A Replacement Child’s Journey to Healing
by Barbara Jaffe Ed.D.
Barbara was born to fill the vacancy left by her little brother, who died at the age of two. This book tells the multitude of readers who have been “replacement children” for many reasons, that they, too, can find hope and healing, as did Barbara.
About the Author
Barbara Jaffe, Ed.D. is an award-winning English professor at El Camino College, California and is a Fellow in UCLA’s Department of Education. She has offered countless workshops to students to help them find their writers’ voices through writing non-fiction. Her college has honored her by naming her Outstanding Woman of the Year and Distinguished Teacher of the Year. Visit her website at BarbaraAnnJaffe.com