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There's More to Motherhood than Baking Cookies

Never Give Up

When 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 she’d 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 didn’t interest her at all. “I’ve just started working!” she smiled. “And I’d 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! I’ve got make a contribution!”

            I insert her story here for several reasons:

1.       this rolling conversation is badly in need of a mother’s story;

2.       the last couple stories suggest it’s okay, it’s normal, to take many years before pursuing your calling, and Mary Ann’s story is here to ring it louder – yes, yes!;

3.       you can have more than one purpose in life, and you can do them together or do them sequentially, it doesn’t matter, so long as you are pursuing them and not some other unimportant thing.

“I’m from the ‘Because I Said So’ generation,” she remarked. That’s not how she raised her kids – that’s 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 Ann’s 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 father’s 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 didn’t. 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 didn’t 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. She’d loved it and planned to return. The job was waiting for her.

            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 didn’t 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 pregnant quickly.

“Back then, that’s 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 – it’s free. If I didn’t give them language, culture, attitudes, they’d have to start from scratch. My first responsibility was to them. In the first ten years, there was never a time that I wasn’t either pregnant or nursing a baby. There was plenty of time in the future to have a career. But I didn’t at all feel like I had dropped out. I still had that sense of worth – I’d 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, ‘There’s more to life than baking cookies,’ and I couldn’t 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 master’s 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 Ann’s 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 master’s 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 can’t say, it wasn’t without a lot of frustration. I’m 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 was grown.”


I’m 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. There’s a tendency – a gravitational pull – to deliver them in the same cadence as we tell career stories. We list projects and achievements that don’t have anything to do with nurturing our children. So twenty years of Mary Ann’s 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, “I’ve told you every detail about my various projects (among them, getting a local school built), and yet I’ve told you absolutely nothing about my kids! I haven’t 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 mother’s 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 doesn’t pick up on the subtlety inherent to a mother’s 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 don’t have one single project that makes for a simple strong storyline. They’re involved in their children’s lives, in their community, in their schools, in their extended families. Mary Ann compared it to the painter Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. “It’s laid down one dot at a time. Rarely does anyone else recognize the meaning of that one dot.” In other words, a mother’s life makes a great painting, but not a very linear story. 3). Parenting is so personal; there’s a religious righteousness when parents talk about their philosophies. Talking about it out loud usually offends someone. 4). A good mother doesn’t own her accomplishments. Her children do. And since children can thrive and fail independent of good parenting, it’s hard to tease out what a mother’s contribution really is. You can’t give all the credit to the mom.

            It’s with this in mind that Mary Ann’s 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 wasn’t easy.

            In Mary Ann’s accounting of her life, in her column of Regrets, perhaps at the very top, you’d 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 that’s 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 Mimi’s 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 Ann’s voice. “If I’d 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 she’d grown up with since a baby girl were all still there. She wrote a letter to the pastor insisting she wasn’t moving.

            Mary Ann’s 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t take Mimi’s 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 next day.

            The California schools were on a semester system and didn’t 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 Santa Cruz.

            Mary Ann paused, sighed, looked into space.

“And one day, Mimi refused to go down to the beach.”

            “Had something happened there the day before?”

            “No, not that. Nothing like that. She was protesting. She just refused to go. And wouldn’t go any more.”

            I couldn’t yet grasp what she was implying. Her daughter wouldn’t 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 that’s just the way it is.

            “She wouldn’t eat anything I cooked. She wouldn’t eat at the dinner table. I tried everything, it didn’t matter. She would stand at the counter over there and refuse to join us. If I’d cooked it, she would ignore it. And she wouldn’t talk to us at all.”

            “Wouldn’t talk?”

            “She lived in the house with us, but she wanted nothing to do with us. She wouldn’t go to counseling. She wouldn’t talk to us, would just ignore us. For the next nine years.”

            “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 didn’t want to board. There was a bus service, but Mimi didn’t 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 didn’t feel like I belonged here in California. I didn’t have a way to connect with others. I tried working part-time; in food service, but after six months realized that wasn’t my taste. I was committed to doing the driving, though. Mimi’s academics improved, and that seemed the most important thing. It was okay.”

            Mimi went to college at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. She’d been excited to attend. Then, something happened. “We really don’t know what happened.” Mary Ann learned that Mimi had run away. Her older sister went down to L.A. and found her at a friend’s house. She hadn’t 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, I’ll 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. It’s really so much better now. We have our Mimi back. It’s like night and day.”

            “What happened?”

            “First, some friends asked her to be their baby boy’s nanny. She was always so good with little kids. The kids on this block always loved her. He’s 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 she’s 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, ‘Let’s go out and go shopping.’ I hadn’t been out with her for years and years. Over Christmas, Mimi bonded with my son Frankie’s wife, Audrey, who’s 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 don’t really know what happened, but it’s 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 Ann’s 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 the home.

            “It’s very rewarding work,” she said, with significant satisfaction. “Illness crosses every barrier. No one seems to escape. I’ve still got my save-the-world attitude. I’ve got lots of energy, good health. I don’t feel unusual. In today’s economy, many don’t retire at my age.”

            She’s 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 we’re 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. It’s important that they have that choice, and that we let people become whatever they’re 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, it’s really a fairly good time to be working.”

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