“I was pregnant with you and sick as a dog. I got home from work, tired and sick to my stomach, and cooked dinner. After dinner I felt so weak that I asked your dad if he could wash the dishes just this once. He said, ‘We never discussed my helping with housework before we got married.’ Then he got up from the table and went to sit in his chair and read. I did the dishes and went to bed. The next evening I cooked dinner after work as usual. While we were eating I told him, ‘I quit my job today.’ He almost fell out of his chair. I smiled and told him, ‘We never discussed my working outside the home before we got married.’ I’ve never worked since.”
My mother told me this story when I was in elementary school, after I’d asked her why she stayed home as a “housewife” instead of going to work like my father did. The lesson I eventually learned from this particular story of hers is one that finally serves me well in midlife: Take action, not crap. I’ve now established boundaries and don’t allow them to be breached. I’m confident enough to walk away from something that’s not working for me. And I always have a backup plan for making things happen. I learned this from watching and listening to my mother from a very young age. Thank you, Mom.
“Always be sure to have your own bank account that your husband doesn’t know about, and get credit cards in your own name, not Mrs. His Name. This is very important!”
I think I was 5 when my mother first told me this. Bank account? Credit cards? How’s that work? She would later take me with her to an imposing, museum-like bank with shimmering chandeliers, heavy velvet ropes, and gleaming dark paneling. There, I watched her go through the process of depositing her own money into her own bank account. Then she opened an account for me, with $100 her brother — a railroad porter — had given her for me as a birthday present. That was a lot of money in the 1960s. More than my little girl mind could comprehend. Throughout the years, I was required to deposit half of all birthday and Christmas gift money, allowances, and payments for babysitting and other jobs into this account. I bought my first house with money from this bank account before I got married. After I was married the account wasn’t a secret I kept from my husband, but it remained my separate account to which he didn’t have access. The bank name has changed multiple times, but I still have this account today.
I can remember hearing my mother warn her friends about the danger of not having their own money and credit cards. “If you get divorced you won’t be able to do anything if you don’t have your own credit,” she’d tell them over the phone. There is power and freedom in financial independence. Thank you for this critical lesson, Mother. You didn’t expect I’d be divorced and on my own in midlife, but your early modeling of financial literacy had an impact that helped me retire solo at 59.
My mother called her bank account “my hair money.” Not because she used the money she stashed there for visits to a salon. She did her own hair and all of ours too. No beauty shop or barber visits for our family. Mom did everything related to our hair herself, way before YouTube tutorials. She put a price tag on her hair services, and paid herself out of my dad’s paycheck every month. She also priced the daily cleaning, cooking, laundry, and sewing services she provided. She paid herself accordingly out of my father’s paychecks, which he handed over to her because he didn’t want to be bothered with household bills and budgeting. Dad was an industrial engineer for The Standard Oil Co. Mom called herself a “domestic engineer.” Throughout the years Mom used her “hair money” to redecorate our house, buy our first color TV, and buy herself a mink coat and hat, among other things.
My mother first explained her self-pay system to me when I was older…maybe 9 or 10, I think. (Years later, in a moment of anger and resentment after she’d slapped me in the face for some minor act of teen disobedience, I wondered — but didn’t dare ask — if she also calculated a value for the sexual services she provided my father.) The valuable lesson: Always know your worth, and value whatever you do. My mother was ahead of her time with this thinking in the 1960s. I’m proud of you for that, Mom. Thank you.
“Always comb your hair and put on lipstick and earrings before your husband gets home from work. Don’t let him come home and find you in curlers and a housecoat. Your husband will be around working women all day. Don’t let him get tempted.”
Another elementary school lesson. This one out of place among her other pieces of feminist advice. Take care of yourself and don’t get lazy or start taking things for granted, because another woman can snatch your man. As anachronistic and controversial as this lesson is, it’s one I’ve heeded in my own way over the years, as a “working woman,” wife, mother, partner, and significant other. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t stop temptation and betrayal. Assholery drives itself. But I have learned that taking care of myself in ways that make me feel good is in fact a necessary act of self-love.
“You can’t go to a slumber party. Their house might catch on fire.”
This was my mother’s reply throughout elementary school whenever I asked if I could spend the night over someone else’s house. Our house had never caught on fire. My mother had never been in or personally witnessed a house fire. But her mind always went to worst-case scenarios so, no, she wasn’t going to chance me possibly being burned alive as I slept in some other house.
This learned fear of possible disaster lurking at every turn has dogged me my entire life. It fuels near-obsessive overthinking and over-the-top contingency planning for every possible “What if.” It negatively impacted choices I made in my job as a mother, while also making me quite good in my earlier job as a crisis communications consultant. When fear is your default setting, you become skilled at preparing for the worst. It can be, and in some instances has been, a useful skill. But it’s also a skill that erodes joy and promotes stress. So in midlife, at nearly 60 years old, I let this lesson from my mother spur me to challenge fear by retiring and traveling around the world by myself. I was afraid and over-prepared for every conceived scenario, but I learned a new lesson: I can be afraid and use my preparedness to lean into joy with the knowledge that I’ve got this. This is something I remember as I’m preparing to move to Portugal and start a new life chapter. Thank you, Mom, for inadvertently leading me to this new lesson.
Lessons For Living
- Speak up, take action, don’t take any crap.
- Make financial independence a priority.
- Know your worth and value your work.
- Take care of yourself as an act of self-love.
- Use fear to lean into joy.
I’m grateful to my mother for many things, even as I’m still trying to come to terms with some painful issues. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. In some ways I’m turning into my mother in midlife. In other ways I’ve been like her all my life as I learned from her. Thank you, Mother, for all the good parts.
What about you? What lessons have you learned from women who raised you?
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