I Am My Mother?s Daughter After All
Barbara Ifshin for GRAND Magazine
Like most early Boomers, I have spent my entire life not wanting to be my mother. It\’s not that my mother wasn\’t a nice person, she was. It\’s just that her life represented a dead end to me. It was everything I didn\’t want. So I ran as fast as I could out of a suburban wasteland of unhappy housewives and into the world of accomplished women who could take care of themselves.
I am a child of the Fifties who came of age in the Sixties. It was so confusing. I grew up on Doris Day movies and Disney dreams. I honestly believed that at a certain point you would just meet someone, look at them and a little bell would go off and you would know – this is THE ONE. But Doris Day was not a housewife. She was a “decorator,” a “business woman.” She wore beautiful clothes. She clung to her virginity like a badge of honor until Rock Hudson finally wore her down. (Who knew he was gay – a sad foreshadowing of so many good men to come and go.)
On television, I distained the Harriet Nelsons (though I loved Ricky and wrote his name across my mirror in lipstick when I was in the 6th grade). No Donna Reed for me. Marlo Thomas in That Girl and later Mary Tyler Moore – these were my idols. Even though they weren\’t in high-powered jobs, they were independent. They represented the woman I wanted to be.
In the early Seventies, when Ellen Peck came out with The Baby Trap, I announced to my mother that I would not have children. I turned to my little sister who was about 10 at the time and told her, “I want to be an aunt.” This decision was later validated (or so I thought) in 1975, when Ann Landers took a poll of her readers and an astounding 70% said if they had it to do over again, they would not have children!
As I looked at my mother\’s life, children represented sacrifice. It meant not being your own person. And so did marriage. My mother was a brilliant woman. And a talented writer. She started college at 16 and after a year and a half decided to get married at the ripe old age of 18. There was a war and that\’s what women did back then. So my mother married and my grandfather promptly told her to get a job, he wasn\’t going to pay for college any more. She didn\’t need it – after all, she was married now. And so my mother gave up her dream of being a writer and became a secretary. Because that\’s what women did back then – they typed.
By the time she was 21, she had me. By the time she was 26, she had three kids – two years apart. She became a maniac. Who wouldn\’t? She put her writing talent into her letters. I will never forget the one she wrote me at camp. She took the wrong pill that night – instead of taking her sleeping pill she took her wake up pill, so she was up all night writing to me. These pills were her doctor\’s prescription for what ailed her. Because that is what they did to woman back then – they medicated them.
So is it any wonder that I gave up Doris Day movies and proclaimed “Two For the Road” my favorite movie of all time. Audrey Hepburn did get married in the movie. But basically she and Albert Finney tooled around Europe in one fun car after another, distaining the dilemma of Married People. What kind of people sit in a restaurant and don\’t even talk to each other?” Albert Finney would ask. “Married people,” came the answer every time. It\’s true – look around a restaurant the next time you are out to dinner.
So life wasn\’t the fairy tale. After the Prince takes the Princess to the castle, the real drama begins. No one tells you that part. But we women born in 1946 – we looked at our mother\’s lives and said – “not for me.”
We took the business world by storm – refusing to type (even though our mother\’s made us take typing and shorthand so we would have something to fall back on). We made money. We wore beautiful clothes. We took disco lessons. We had so much fun. And when the big 3-0 came, we got a little nervous. We heard the ticking of our biological clocks. We told ourselves there was plenty of time – if we wanted kids, we\’d do it later. We were so enamored of our new found power, we honestly believed we could out fox Mother Nature.
As we pushed toward 40, we began to realize we had made choices. They were choices we would have to live with. Some were married, but they couldn\’t get pregnant. Others had gone through several marriages, finally landing in the right relationship when it was too late. Some had children and missed being a so-called “good mother.” They were too busy being good at work – trying to do everything in an overachieving way. Some of us never married at all.
In my mid-30s, I found myself in a boring job, with an exciting life. I decided to do something about it and ended up in an exciting career. But somewhere along the way, I forgot to live.
I hang around with a lot of young women – it keeps me young. I sometimes envy their youth and chance to make different decisions than I did. But I also see the turmoil in their eyes – as they try to balance doing a good job at work, with being a good wife and mother. Not to mention being good to themselves. I tell them about choices. “You can have it all,” I say – “Just not at the same time.” I have encouraged many women to quit working when they have young children (if they can afford it). “You can always have a career,” I tell them, “but you will never get back these years.” I know these women are struggling. They don\’t want to let we women of the Sixties down. They know we paved the way for them to have opportunities our mothers never had. But in a way, we are their worst nightmare, just as our mothers were ours.
My mother and I never really talked about my choices, and I always wondered how she felt about it. She had grandchildren, so she didn\’t need me for that. Once we were out of the house, she became President of the Temple and found her voice. She seemed happy. She seemed proud of all I had accomplished. But I began to wonder about myself. Had I given up what really mattered in life? Or had I chosen what was right for me, when I decided I didn\’t want to live my mother\’s life?
My mother died a few years ago. At her funeral, I listened as those who loved her eulogize her. I listened to how she handled the Rabbi, the Temple Board, Temple members. I listened to her management style and I realized, they were describing me. And in that moment, I also realized that my sister and I had each lived one half of who our mother was. My sister became the perfect mother. I became the perfect aunt with the “Career.” My mother was not a one-dimensional person, as I had seen her through my teenage eyes.
My sister and I had both lived our mother\’s dream, just not at the same time.