When I was first married, my mother used to send me letters addressed to “Mrs. Thomas M. Bowman,” my new husband’s name. I would scrawl a note across the envelope, “I don’t know who this is,” and send the letters back, unopened.
We had clashed over a number of things during the wedding planning. But, by far, our biggest argument had been over how to address the invitations.
She wanted them to go out in the traditional style: to Dr. and Mrs. Arthur A. Schulte, Jr. That was just how it was done. I wanted to at least include the female member of the couple’s name on the invite. And I won.
To say my mother was scandalized is a bit of an oversell. But she certainly didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to me. She also didn’t understand why I, a 30-year-old woman, wasn’t changing my last name upon marriage, as she had. She nodded in silent approval when my dad lectured me sternly after the ceremony: “You’re married to Tom now. You let him make the decisions.” To which I replied, with arched eyebrow, “We’ll both make them.” And when I became a mother, she didn’t understand why I continued to work.
I love my mother. I talk to her almost every day. She is one of the most giving and generous people I know. After Tom and I had children, she put her life on hold numerous times to fly across the country to help us, something I hope Tom and I can do for our own children someday. But in some ways, I’ve often thought of my mother as living her entire life on hold.
She studied to be a medical technician at the University of Wyoming in the 1950s, not because it was her dream — I don’t think she let herself dream — but because she didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, the only other options outside an MRS degree that she felt she had as a woman. And as the first woman in her family to go to college, she was just glad to be there at all.
But neither she nor my father, nor any of their friends, had any doubt about the shape her life would take after that: Work for a few years. Marry well. Stay home and raise the children, drive the carpools, cook the meals and wash the clothes, while the husband worked to provide and called the shots. Then care for that husband as he grew old and infirm. As she now spends her days and many nights caring for my father as he struggles to recover from another stroke, her life has followed that script to a T. That’s just how it was done.
Was it easier for her? Easier not to dream? Convinced in your bones that you’d just be a selfish woman if you tried to? Was it easier to go through life with such such socially-sanctioned certainty that you are coloring inside the lines, doing things the “right” way? Sometimes, as I walked out the door to work in the morning, leaving the house a mess and two fussy, demanding, hilarious and beautiful toddlers in the care of others, I was freighted with so much guilt, ambivalence and uncertainty about whether I was doing the “right” thing that I felt sick to my stomach.
And coming home in the evenings, the pangs would move into my chest. “Awwww,” my mother would sigh with a hint of both sympathy and judgment when I called to talk to her during my long commutes home, “you’re getting home so … late.”
But just as she gave her life to an unquestioned ideal of the private life of eternal motherhood, I gave mine to a new, untested and unorthodox idea that both women and men could have dreams for a meaningful public life and a rich private life at home.
That our workplace cultures still reward long hours of face time and employees with no care-giving duties, that our laws still reward families that look like my parents’ and that even I unconsciously still assumed I should do it all at home, like my mother did, just shows how far we have to go before that untested idea becomes more than just that, an idea.
As I was reporting for my book, “Overwhelmed,” on the madness caused by this disconnect, I had a chance to interview my mother about our different lives. It hit me just how far apart our worlds have always been. After college, I went on to get a master’s degree and still hunger to learn more. She told me it never mattered to her if my sisters and I went to college at all.
“But I thought it would be a good back-up plan,” she said.
“Well, you know, just in case …”
In case I never did become Mrs. Thomas M. Bowman.
Women told us about how their lives differed from their mothers’, particularly in the professional space. Read about how expectations, choices and opportunities changed across generations: Not my mother’s world.