When my mother gave birth to my older brother in 1966, her “maternity leave” lasted less than a week. After welcoming a baby on a Saturday, she was back in her lab by Thursday, determined to balance family and career with an aggressive demonstration of commitment to the latter (it didn’t quite work out: six months later, she was let go by her university department, which considered motherhood incompatible with a career as a scientist).
When my sister and I were born more than a decade later, my mother had mellowed a bit when it came to the idea of a postpartum break. In Israel, where my family lived at the time, new mothers were given three months of paid leave, allowing her to more easily balance the needs of her career with those of her infant daughters. But the mindset that led my mother to jump back into the workforce almost immediately after giving birth never quite left her. Throughout my childhood, it was generally a given that my mother’s career was one of her primary focuses, often taking precedence over other aspects of her life.
In a world where women are constantly judged for how we do—or, more often, don’t—balance family and career, this all may sound like a dig at my mom, a way of writing her off as cold and unloving, too obsessed with work to do the real work of being a mom. But it’s not. In fact, my mother’s decision to prioritize her career was one of the greatest gifts she gave me growing up.
Granted, it didn’t always feel that way at the time. When my mom got a new job and my family had to relocate from the suburbs of Philadelphia to Buffalo, New York, midway through my first year of high school, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. And there were plenty of times when work travel took my mother away from home, times when I might have wished she’d been around to have dinner and chat about my day.
But what I knew, even then, was that my mother’s work wasn’t just something she did for money, or to get out of the house. It was part of who she was as a person, a hard-fought component of her identity. I knew it was an essential aspect of her happiness—and I knew, even then, that my mother’s happiness was important.
My mother’s career as a scientist, and later a university administrator, may have taken her away from home, and forced her kids to adjust our lives around her schedule. But what we gave up in primacy we gained back in other ways. Having a fulfilling, rewarding career, and a life outside the home, made my mother feel like a complete person. And her sense of fulfillment made her a better mother.
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As I grew into adulthood, my mother’s life choices served as an inspiring example to me. Her decisions were a constant reminder that I, too, could put my own needs first, that making my wellbeing and self-care a priority could be a choice that helped make me a better partner, friend, family member, and, potentially one day, parent. Instead of raising me to think that caregiving meant sacrificing all of myself for others before tending to my own needs, my mother demonstrated by example that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Being a mother is never easy, and being a working mother in a society that doesn’t invest in the well-being of mothers or women at work is dramatically more difficult. As my friends become mothers themselves, I’ve watched as so many of them struggle with the fear that they won’t be enough for their kids. So many women I know have voiced the fear that in trying to balance both career and child rearing, they’ll wind up failing at both, disappointing their children while failing to achieve their dreams.
But for me, the close, loving relationship that I have with my mother to this day serves as proof that succeeding at motherhood doesn’t have to require being present 100 percent of the time or focusing on your children’s needs to the exclusion of your own.
As an adult, the example my mother set has given me the courage and confidence to boldly make choices that have taken my life to unexpected places—at different times, that’s meant spending a few years covering the porn industry and joining a roller derby league. It’s helped me to put myself first in my intimate relationships too, making it easier to communicate my needs to partners, knowing that if I’m not happy, the relationship will not be healthy. And though I’m not yet a mother myself, my hope is that if I do become one, I’ll be able to set as courageous an example of fierce, determined womanhood for my own children as my mother set for me.
I’m sure that my mother had to make difficult choices throughout my childhood, and that it wasn’t always easy to decide when to put herself first and when to prioritize her family. And although she’s never been the most open about her parenting anxieties, I’m sure she must have worried that she wasn’t doing enough or that she was failing her kids at times when we really needed her. But growing up, I knew that my mother loved me enough to be there for me, and that she loved herself enough to take breaks when she needed. And that was worth more than anything else she could have given me.