I was born in 1974. My parents were 20 years old when I was born and already had a 3 1/2 year-old son—my brother, Ken. He was born in 1971, just after Christmas, and in their senior year of high school. They got married on October 24, 1970, a few months in advance of his birth and quite a few months after my mom figured out she was pregnant, without healthcare, without any financial support, and with the knowledge that if they got married they would received little or no help from the state (welfare benefits are provided only to single parents in the United States). With some training as a seamstress, my mom altered her junior prom dress for the wedding and was promptly “encouraged”/”asked” to leave the school because she was pregnant. They did not, after all, want her to “encourage” other “girls” to get pregnant. My father was allowed to finish his senior year and, as editor of the yearbook, made sure to include her picture in the graduating album photos—although she did not graduate with her peers and did not officially graduate from high school.
This year, in October, they will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. And on each Mother’s Day (as well as Father’s Day), I am reminded of their commitment to one another and become confused about the differentiation (now) between Mother’s and Father’s Day. If I can say anything of value about my parents, it is of their unfailing commitment to one another and to each of their (now) four children. Yet this is also a commitment that far outpaces any strident ideas about what it means to be a “mother” or a “father” and speaks far more, in our lived experience, to their overarching commitment to being a team in both raising and supporting all of us as partners, friends, and steadfast companions. Despite any of our efforts to find fault lines to exploit in their relationship (to our advantage, mostly as teens), they have been a consistently united front in the face of their children’s rising expectations and demands. So, thank you, both Mom and Dad, for caring, loving, and being there for all of us.
Yet, as ever, I have to admit as well that it is impossible not to reckon with the strange and uneven geography of motherhood and fatherhood with each passing year. After all, my mother—not my father—was “asked” to leave school. And she gave up her own dreams of a career to support his as time went on.
She gave, of course—her time, her ability, and also her work ethic in the face of criticism from other (at-home) mothers as well as all (and there were many) critical of women who attempted to balance job and family at the time. She worked job after job to support my dad through his schooling and took on jobs according to his needs and location after. Yet she also cooked, cleaned and did everything else when I was young. I always had the best homemade dresses and Halloween costumes thanks to her sewing machine, worked at nights and on weekends. After learning that I needed to have a french braid for performances in high school, she not only taught herself how to braid my hair for these occasions to accommodate the request, she also showed up several hours early to the school to braid my friend’s hair who did not have help in doing so. I could go on; there are a thousand places and spaces where she gave far more than was appreciated to support her four children in their adventures and ideas over the years.
And yet he gave as well; after spending a year as an English literature major at Northeastern University with two children, he realized that it was not the best financial decision for an occupation involving financial support for young children. So he visited the guidance counselor and asked which occupation would pay the most when he graduated. The reply? Chemical engineering, which he promptly switched to as a major (and to which they replied, “what? don’t you get it? people drop OUT of this degree into the arts, not the other way around!”). After being told that 2/3 of students would not actually make it to graduation, he graduated with honors five years later. In all, after following the cooperative education program at Northeastern, it took six years to graduate. My brother and I attended his graduation and, over the next 20 years, our socioeconomic status gradually rose as he got better, more well-paying positions, as mom worked, and as they both paid off the accumulated debt of his school loans.
It has often been impressed upon me, and been apparent, that my dad is one of the hardest-working, most committed, and smartest people I know. It was considered impossible for him to graduate with a family, with little background, and with an interest in literature, from a selective engineering program. Yet he did, and he continued to impress his co-workers and superiors until his company and position was eliminated 30 years later.
Yet my success, as well as that of my siblings, would have been impossible had it not been for both of my parents’ commitment to one another and our family first through all of it. And I would be remiss if this did not also include an honest accounting of the price my mom paid in all of it. Because, ultimately, she threw herself willingly into his career as support. But she also had her own dreams about what she wanted to be and what she wanted to do in life. And while he put his aside for a career, she put hers aside as well for a job and followed him wherever the career led. And while he, for a long time, benefited from recognition in the workplace from dedication to a career, she continually worked jobs that were well beneath her ability and not well-recognized in our culture. Most importantly, she was and has always been the unseen force that has been foundational to both of their workplace capabilities and success—that is, dry-cleaning, laundry, packing for work-related travel, shopping, and all of the things that go unrecognized in assuring that we all get to the places we need to be, with the supplies we need for success, on time and in good spirits.
And yet, we have no real accounting of the contributions that this brings to our society and culture. Or do we? I was shocked, I have to say, when a few years ago my husband and I volunteered to go through several boxes and scan old pictures as a gift to my parents and came across this recognition conferred by Northeastern University to my mother from the College of Human Relations:
Clearly, we have been able and could recognize the support that partners provide in the pursuit of providing for both career and family. Yet, I can’t think of a single thing now that compares to this.
And yet, I have to also admit that my mother, upon seeing it again, resurrected from the basement boxes, didn’t remember receiving it. So what does it ultimately mean?
The truth is neither my husband nor I could pull off what they did as partners. They beat all odds in making it to 45 years, when all the cards were and are stacked against teenage, poor, and unsupported parents.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I salute you, Mom and Dad: I have no idea of the challenges you faced or the mountains you had to climb in order to get us here, yet I am quite sure they were far more complicated, untrodden, and difficult to conquer than ours. And for that, I can only say thank you and I wish I was as tough as the both of you. Yet you both mothered all of us as partners along the way.
I have only you to thank in helping me understand what real commitment in the face of adversity is, and how partners in life support one another through the good, bad, ugly and beautiful moments in life. Thank you.
To you, Dad, thanks for forging ahead to make a life even when you were unsure of where it led and for constantly reminding us of what is important.
To you, Mom, thanks for making the trains run on time, year after year, and still working full time to support us—and for reminding us of what is important as well.
To both of you: thanks for being partners in life for all of our benefit. When I was going through the boxes when you moved (I was 18 at the time), I found a letter that I didn’t expect: a letter from Dad to Mom trying to convince you to marry him, written obviously before all of us were born. In it, Dad addressed the letter to “Hey Jude”—a reference at the time to your name (Judy) but also indicative of the desire to make everything in your lives (which were not perfect) beautiful. So I dedicate “Hey Jude” to both of you on this Mother’s Day: