When I was in sixth grade, I had this assignment. I was to debate against classmate Bob Edwards the question, which is the better sex, female or male? While the question itself was wrong, I won because of my mother. When I told her I wasn’t sure how to make my case, she offered up an aphorism from her secret arsenal: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
This from a woman who quit her job as soon as her husband returned from the war so they could start a family, a housewife (by her own definition) whose work was never done, a woman whose work ethic set the bar in our family none of us has surpassed, a person who would do anything for the other.
Yet for much of my mother’s life, I didn’t give her much credit. I recognized that she was entirely capable, organized, compassionate, and generous, but there was one thing she did that made my gut twist. She put herself down. “I’m so fat” or “I’m so dumb” or “I’m so ugly.” None of her statements was true, yet it seemed almost necessary for her to remind herself of her unworthiness.
With the arrogance of youth, I vowed my life would be different. I would be different. I was going to succeed where I believed Mother had come up short. I would rock the cradle and rule the world. (As a white woman who hasn’t felt constrained by race, poverty, or class, I recognize the privilege from which I write. Only in the realm of being female have I met resistance, while many women face resistance on multiple levels.)
Then I met my first husband while in graduate school. Within a year I’d quit my job in publishing, gotten married, and moved to Minnesota. I became pregnant and began freelancing. During that time I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. She articulated the importance of women having a separate personal identity. She validated my need for self-actualization.
For the next forty years, two powerful forces did battle inside me. In an early novel I was writing, I explored this tension through the mother, a journalist, who tells her young son she is taking an assignment overseas and will be gone for a while. What would happen, the mother wondered, if she gave up what she loved—being a mother—for what she loved—the pursuit of her own dreams? Were these forces necessarily in conflict? Was it possible to have both?
As with so many of the writing projects I’ve attempted over the years, I didn’t finish that novel. I also didn’t finish exploring that question. Now I’ve come to realize that there is no answer, at least not an easy one. Or that the answer is different for every woman, regardless the generation.
I had many more opportunities available to me than my mother did. I have a college education and graduate degree. I’ve traveled widely. I’ve found expression and accomplishment through my work outside of the home. Still, as my own insecurities dog me, I am more like her than I ever imagined I would be.
For too long I’ve been a feminist of convenience, at little personal risk. In 1984 I attended the rally at which then-presidential candidate Walter Mondale introduced Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate to my cheers. I sat in the auditorium at Hamline University while Anita Hill recounted the abuses she endured from Clarence Thomas; for a few months I wore a pin that read “I believe Anita Hill.” I marched with thousands of women in January 2017, buoyed by a collective need to be heard, and then went about my life. Worst, I too often dismissed my mother as “just a mom” and ignored her daily, quiet effort to make my life better.
Mother may have been a traditional housewife, but she was the better feminist. Her agenda never wavered. Everything she did was for her children. She had dreams of a college education and a career (she confessed late in life that she would have gone to seminary had women been accepted) that she realized through her daughters. Accepting the limits society placed on her and she, sadly, placed on herself, she still chose to sacrifice her very self so that I might have a stronger sense of mine.
Mother’s was the hand that rocked my cradle, preparing me to make my way in the world. I remember and honor her and all the mothers who have made possible the freedoms I enjoy. Now I must do the same.