to What Should I Do With My Life?
More to Motherhood than Baking Cookies
Mary Ann Clark graduated from college in 1960, she wanted to save the
world from poverty, birth defects, and malnutrition. But if I had
anything to give, I thought I should give it to my children first.
Twenty years and four children later, on the verge of starting the career
shed looked forward to for so long, she unexpectedly got pregnant
again, and gave birth in her early forties to a fifth child. The second
phase of her life turned out to be the same as her first. Many moms awed
me with their patience, but Mary Ann lapped them all. She and I
corresponded for several months, and I went to see her the day after her
65th birthday an age that many consider retiring, like her
husband Hal, who was making plans. But retirement didnt interest her at
all. Ive just started working! she smiled. And Id like to
continue! She is the field interviewer for a large research study of
childhood leukemia. She travels all over Northern California. This is
exciting for me! Ive got make a contribution!
I insert her story here for several reasons:
rolling conversation is badly in need of a mothers story;
last couple stories suggest its okay, its normal, to
take many years before pursuing your calling, and Mary Anns story is
here to ring it louder yes, yes!;
can have more than one purpose in life, and you can do them together or do
them sequentially, it doesnt matter, so long as you are pursuing them
and not some other unimportant thing.
from the Because I Said So generation, she remarked. Thats not
how she raised her kids thats how she was raised, in urban
Philadelphia. She was one of six children. Her mother gave birth to three
before the war, and to three more after the war. Mary Anns grandmother
had passed away in between, and so her mother had little help in raising
the second crop. Mothering was hard enough without a second hand, and
young Mary Ann took note of this. She took note of the grudge her mother
seemed to bear. She took note of the counterexample one of her
fathers sisters. This aunt was unmarried, and an accountant, and
traveled frequently, and always had a story to tell. So did her father,
who was a biochemist and always interested in diet and nutrition. At the
dinner table, he always had something in his day to recount, while her
mother didnt. He seemed to have more fun. On Saturdays, when he worked
a half day, he would often bring the children to his lab. This made an
impression on Mary Ann. She had a brain and wanted to use it. Housework
didnt appeal to her. She never assumed she would get married.
Carrying on in the vein of her father, she studied Food and Nutrition and
minored in Science, graduating with a B.S. in Home Economics from LaSalle.
The summer prior, she had worked as a dietician at Fitzgerald Mercy
Hospital. Shed loved it and planned to return. The job was waiting for
But Hal wanted to get married. He campaigned hard. Hal had gone to
high school with her brothers, while she was at Little Flower. They
didnt date then, but he was The Boy of My Dreams and the dream never
died, Mary Ann explained. He came back into her life in college. Mary
Ann was torn. I made the right choice, but for the wrong reasons,
she admitted. I thought I could marry Hal and still do whatever I
wanted. I liked the idea of independence. She had little intention of
giving it up, but soon discovered the necessary compromises of
partnership. Mercy Hospital was on the other side of Philly, an hour and a
half bus ride each way. Working there was impractical. Anyway, she got
Back then, thats just the way it was. I was a
Catholic schoolgirl of the 50s. My classmates and friends were doing
the same. I thought I had so much to offer society. We had a do-gooder
attitude. But first, I wanted to give it to my children. Whatever you can
give your children its free. If I didnt give them
language, culture, attitudes, theyd have to start from scratch. My
first responsibility was to them. In the first ten years, there was never
a time that I wasnt either pregnant or nursing a baby. There was plenty
of time in the future to have a career. But I didnt at all feel like I
had dropped out. I still had that sense of worth Id gone to
college! That was special. We had so much optimism and energy.
Hal was offered a job with IBM, and they soon moved
to Hopewell Junction, New York, (pop. 4,000). Mary Ann ferried her kids to
swim practice and planned Girl Scout meetings and drove the elderly ladies
next door to the store. She tended an organic garden and built a solar
addition. And still had more energy to give.
It was around the early 70s that women began
the mantra, Theres more to life than baking cookies, and I
couldnt have agreed more.
She played the organ at church and served on the
Women in Church Committee for the Archdiocese of New York. She was on the
local conservation commission. In the early 70s, she began substitute
teaching at the junior high, her youngest girl in tow. Most of her friends
were doing the same, working their schedule around their children. By law,
Mary Ann was limited to substituting 80 days a year unless she had a
teaching credential or masters degree,. So when Route 84 opened to
Danbury, Mary Ann started taking one class a semester at night at Western
Connecticut University. She was patient, so patient. By the time her
youngest was in junior high school, most of Mary Anns friends were
well-entrenched in the job market as nurses or dieticians or teachers.
Money was tight for the Clarks; the padding in their budget went straight
to college tuition. They needed a second income. In December of 1979, she
completed her coursework for her masters degree in General Education.
Her youngest, Karen, would start high school the next fall. Mary Ann would
begin teaching health education full-time.
Finally, the payoff for her patience!
But in February, she discovered she was pregnant.
Mimi, their fifth child, was born on Thanksgiving 1980.
One must deal with the cards they are dealt,
Mary Ann insisted. Then, I cant say, it wasnt without a lot of
frustration. Im better with babies than I am with pregnancies. I had my
moments. Then, back to her optimism: Of all the things that could
have happened to us, relatively, a baby was easy to deal with. We had
friends with cancer and MS and heart disease. Mary Ann described her
ambiguity of feeling as a cross between Walter Mitty and Eyeore. I have
spent most of my life planning a vision of what I would do after my family
not doing this story justice. I think Mary Ann felt the same way when she
was telling it to me. I think so many mothers feel that way, period.
Mother stories are very hard to tell. Theres a tendency a
gravitational pull to deliver them in the same cadence as we tell
career stories. We list projects and achievements that dont have
anything to do with nurturing our children. So twenty years of Mary
Anns mothering is described by naming the committees she served on. The
truth is, all those side projects were not nearly as much work as the
daily attentions required in raising four children.
One mother I interviewed was adamant that this book should include
not just mothers, but stay-at-home moms. I agreed, and asked her to share
her story. She then wrote me several thousand words of description, ten
pages long, and at the end of which, she realized, Ive told you
every detail about my various projects (among them, getting a local school
built), and yet Ive told you absolutely nothing about my kids! I
havent even told you their names! This shocked her. She intended to
do the very opposite, but once she began writing, she succumbed to the
usual story-conventions, leading with vocational accomplishments.
Why is it so hard to tell a mothers story?
I put this question out to many mothers, and a few answers came
back again and again: 1) A culture that celebrates careers more than
parenting doesnt pick up on the subtlety inherent to a mothers
story. The subtle triumphs of a baby finally going to sleep, or a child
learning a new letter, get drowned out by the noise of a big career
advancement. 2). Mothers lives are very fractured. They dont have
one single project that makes for a simple strong storyline. Theyre
involved in their childrens lives, in their community, in their
schools, in their extended families. Mary Ann compared it to the painter
Georges Seurats famous pointillist work, A Sunday Afternoon on the
Island of La Grande Jatte. Its laid down one dot at a time.
Rarely does anyone else recognize the meaning of that one dot. In other
words, a mothers life makes a great painting, but not a very linear
story. 3). Parenting is so personal; theres a religious righteousness
when parents talk about their philosophies. Talking about it out loud
usually offends someone. 4). A good mother doesnt own her
accomplishments. Her children do. And since children can thrive and fail
independent of good parenting, its hard to tease out what a mothers
contribution really is. You cant give all the credit to the mom.
Its with this in mind that Mary Anns story has special merit.
That she waited 40+ years to begin her career is marvelous (nice!
terrific!) but her real purpose, her first purpose, was to help her
kids survive and thrive. With her fifth child, that wasnt easy.
In Mary Anns accounting of her life, in her column of Regrets,
perhaps at the very top, youd find this inconspicuous entry: being a
Thanksgiving baby, her daughter Mimi could enter kindergarten at five or
at six she had the option of waiting a year. And because Mimi weighed
a mere 32 pounds at the time, Mary Ann held her back, to grow a little. It
was a well-meaning decision, but one thats been reconsidered a million
times. Eight years later, Mimi was thirteen when Hal was laid off with
many other IBM engineers. His friends simply retired, but the Clarks
needed tuition for Mimis schooling. In the middle of the year, Hal was
offered a job across the country, in Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz. Mimi
had a year-and-a-half of junior high remaining.
The memory brought pain to Mary Anns voice. If Id enrolled
her in kindergarten at five, she would have been fourteen by then. And we
just would have let Hal move to California. I would have stayed with Mimi
to finish junior high. As it was, we moved her, in the middle of the year,
at a precious time in her development.
Mimi had a very emotional attachment to their home in Hopewell
Junction. The friends shed grown up with since a baby girl were all
still there. She wrote a letter to the pastor insisting she wasnt
Mary Anns tone suggested this story was leading somewhere
painful. Offering a preemptory excuse, she explained, We always gave
the kids a say, but in this decision there really was no choice. It
couldnt be changed.
At the airport, there was a storm, and the planes were late. In
order to make their Chicago connection, the airline said they couldnt
take Mimis bunny. Mary Ann stood by her daughter. I was not getting
on the plane without that rabbit. Hal went ahead. They took a plane the
The California schools were on a semester system and didnt
insist on Mimi entering classes until the second semester. So every day,
for the first two weeks, Mary Ann and Mimi would go down to the beach in
Mary Ann paused, sighed, looked into space.
And one day, Mimi refused to go down to the
Had something happened there the day before?
No, not that. Nothing like that. She was protesting. She just
refused to go. And wouldnt go any more.
I couldnt yet grasp what she was implying. Her daughter
wouldnt go to the beach? So what? But the beach was the start of far
more to come. So that non-trip to the beach was loaded with all the
emotion and regret. Mary Ann recounted the rest of it with fairly good
cheer, her voice implying these are just the kinds of challenges a
mother might get, and thats just the way it is.
She wouldnt eat anything I cooked. She wouldnt eat at the
dinner table. I tried everything, it didnt matter. She would stand at
the counter over there and refuse to join us. If Id cooked it, she
would ignore it. And she wouldnt talk to us at all.
She lived in the house with us, but she wanted nothing to do
with us. She wouldnt go to counseling. She wouldnt talk to us, would
just ignore us. For the next nine years.
Yes, nine years. She was sweet and nice to everyone else. I
never gave up. It was very painful, as you can imagine. But you never give
up on a child.
Mary Ann had planned to start her career when Mimi began high
school. And when Mimi chose to attend Santa Catalina, down in Monterey, 48
miles away, maybe that was for the best. Santa Catalina was a boarding
school. But then Mimi decided she didnt want to board. There was a bus
service, but Mimi didnt like the bus. So every afternoon, for four
years, Mary Ann drove down to Monterey to pick her daughter and friends up
from school. (One of their fathers took the morning leg). Ninety-six miles
a day, trapped in the same car, with a daughter that refused to talk to
her. Mimi also hated it when Mary Ann talked to her friends. The career
would wait until Mimi went to college.
Those years, I didnt feel like I belonged here in California.
I didnt have a way to connect with others. I tried working part-time;
in food service, but after six months realized that wasnt my taste. I
was committed to doing the driving, though. Mimis academics improved,
and that seemed the most important thing. It was okay.
Mimi went to college at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Shed
been excited to attend. Then, something happened. We really dont
know what happened. Mary Ann learned that Mimi had run away. Her
older sister went down to L.A. and found her at a friends house. She
hadnt been going to class and had told friends she was sick.
She came home to live with us again. She was really a vegetable.
She walked in the front door, dropped her suitcases, and went to her room.
The suitcases sat in the front hallway for months, until I finally said to
her, If you put them away, Ill let you get a cat. Mimi signed up
for community college courses, but never went to any classes. She talked
to nobody. She was very reclusive.
This was how long ago?
Three years. Its really so much better now. We have our Mimi
back. Its like night and day.
First, some friends asked her to be their baby boys nanny.
She was always so good with little kids. The kids on this block always
loved her. Hes going to kindergarten now. She really responded to him.
Then recently, just these last few months, she shined that light on the
rest of us. She started taking classes at the Academy of Art College, in
San Francisco even though shes living here and she loves it.
All that time, she was really just looking for something to love. And then
the day after Thanksgiving, she said to me, Lets go out and go
shopping. I hadnt been out with her for years and years. Over
Christmas, Mimi bonded with my son Frankies wife, Audrey, whos an
interior designer. Somehow, that just clicked for Mimi. She finally felt
like part of this family. And one day she came out of her room and said,
Hi mom!, very friendly. And that was it. At last, it was over. We
dont really know what happened, but its gone. She became herself
again. Her boyfriend eats here with us often.
You must have felt helpless. For years.
Oh yes. But I still have so many fond memories of when she was
young, and new memories recently. I never gave up.
Indeed. Two years ago, she spotted a classified ad in the
newspaper. It said something about knowledge of nutrition, which
made me think I could apply. She was hired as a research interviewer
for very large, significant study on the possible environmental and
genetic factors that contribute to childhood leukemia. The study has been
in process since 1995, involves nine hospitals, and has been sponsored by
the Northern California Cancer Center and UC Berkeley. Mary Anns work
is sorta like mine: she drives around and interviews mothers and their
children for a couple hours. She takes dust samples and learns their
family illness histories and records what household products are stored in
Its very rewarding work, she said, with significant
satisfaction. Illness crosses every barrier. No one seems to escape.
Ive still got my save-the-world attitude. Ive got lots of energy,
good health. I dont feel unusual. In todays economy, many dont
retire at my age.
Shes proud to have watched society evolve. In my day, if a
woman was pregnant, it looked bad on a corporation to expect her to work.
It was considered cruel to let a pregnant woman work. We used to be afraid
of a diverse work force my father was angrily criticized for hiring
black people in his lab but now were proud to be part of a diverse
work force. Diversity is admirable. We no longer impose so many standards
on people. They have choices. Women can work or stay home. Its
important that they have that choice, and that we let people become
whatever theyre called to become. She summed it up this way. I
waited a long time to work. And from my perspective, regardless of the
unemployment rate, its really a fairly good time to be working.
to What Should I Do With My Life?