A confession: I have always believed I have to be a star.
To be clear, I don’t mean I am destined to be a star; just that I am supposed to be one. Stardom feels like a responsibility, a debt I owe my parents, teachers, classmates, and anyone else who sees me as a writer who hasn’t done anything legitimate with her talent yet. It’s also a kind of unspoken, unwritten contract I entered into with my attorney mother when I decided to stay home with my kids instead of pursuing a Career-with-a-Capital-C:
She would allow me to choose this path, which she did not respect because she believed it made me dependent on my husband and because she considered it beneath the dignity of intelligent, modern women. In return, I would keep writing while I changed diapers and did the laundry and kept fevers down and made dinner. I would keep practicing and eventually, when my children were studying at their respectable colleges, looking gorgeous and being unimaginably charming (the least I could do if I wasn’t going to accomplish anything else in the years they were home with me), I would emerge from my drab domestic chrysalis in a shimmering caftan, expensive bifocals dangling on a golden chain around my neck, and rocket to the top of every list that mattered to her.
At some point, I must have agreed to this, I must have signed that contract. It might have been when I was 20, the day I told my mother I wanted to stay home with babies and bake lovely cakes and muffins and make quilts. We were in her kitchen and she gripped the counter, leaning forward with her shoulders up around her jaw, which couldn’t find the right position. “Okaaaaaayyyy,” she half-sang, half muttered to her gorgeous fingernails, which she still manicured herself each Sunday night while she watched Masterpiece Theater. She couldn’t relate to this.
Don’t be too hard on her. I was two and she was 35 when she started law school in 1974. There were few other women in her class and even fewer with young children. She had been a 5th-grade teacher for 11 years before having me and spent another year or so afterwards earning a Master’s degree in Pyschology from the University of Minnesota. She used to tell me that Watergate saved her from the punishing boredom of being home with a newborn. What can I say? It’s a good thing she didn’t want to write greeting cards.
She was a Grinnell graduate, a Wyonegonic camp counselor, and an Edina teacher. She played flute and sang beautifully, never met a kid she couldn’t somehow charm and discipline at the same time, and had an organizational system for everything. She was the first female partner at her enormous downtown law firm, which she eventually left to start her own practice. She wore power suits with shoulder pads, mentored young lawyers, held season tickets to the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra. She did the Sunday crossword and dabbled in Sudoku, sat on hospital credentialing boards, and knew the Minneapolis skyway system like the back of her hand. She was already the star she wanted me to be.
I am so proud of her. I have never aspired to what my mom dreamed for me, but I love what she dreamed for herself and reached for and achieved. I still brag about her all the time, but she’s gone now and the contract is null and void. I’m off the hook, I don’t have to succeed her way, so what next? What am I going to dream for myself?
I do want to write and publish a book in my lifetime, though I don’t know what kind. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s useful to anyone who reads it. I want it to be the kind of book someone can melt into and maybe hide out in for a while. I don’t need critical acclaim or celebrity …or at least I’m trying not to need those things, which feel like part of the old contract.
Staying at home with my babies was a good decision for me, it turns out … not because kids always need their mothers at home –you will never hear this attorney’s daughter say something that reductive—but because I love being at home. My work is a natural extension of who I am. I have tweaked the original vision: I expanded my baking repertoire beyond the original cakes and muffins and replaced the quilt-making, which involves too much geometry for me, with knitting, which is a better waiting room skill.
I am living the life I dreamed for myself, just like my mom did. Of course there are mistakes and detours and whatnot, but I love what I do and I’m proud of my work. Isn’t that dignified? Isn’t that intelligent? Isn’t that modern, even if my name isn’t on a paycheck? (It should be).
I think my mom saw my decision to be a hausfrau as a kind of betrayal, a refusal to acknowledge what she had to go through to achieve what she did in the ’70s and ’80s, but I absolutely acknowledge that and I am so grateful. Watching her bravely go to work when the “respectable mothers” were at home is precisely what has given me the courage to stay home when the “respectable women” go to work. The point of our striving for equality should never be what kind of work we do, the point should be fighting for the choice and granting each other the space, the respect to make that choice, even if we don’t understand it.
I will keep one part of the original contract: I will keep writing, though I write for my own reasons now. I write to reassure, to be a voice in the dark, not for approval or recognition. I will send these letters or essays or whatever they are out to You in hopes that they are useful, maybe a place to rest for a minute and let yourself off the hook.
And I will send them out to my brilliant, brave, inspiring mother, gone for almost four years now, in hopes that these reflections reach her through increasing time and space, through the darkness and silence that always seems to exist between two stars.