The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 2, 2014 by

Do What I Do, Not What I Say


My mother says a lot of things that drive me crazy. A favorite, which she has said to me my whole life (and which I try desperately not to say to my own kids) is: “What’s wrong with you??” (variation: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”). Another is: “Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor” (even when I’m barely being sarcastic). But there is one thing she says that bothers me like nothing else: “Oh, her? She doesn’t have to work.”

As in, “Did I tell you? So-and-so’s daughter’s husband is making so much money as a radiologist/dermatologist/cardiologist/endodontist. They just bought a huge house in Thornhill Woods. And they have a live-in nanny, and they just spent two weeks at an all-inclusive in Aruba.” 

Some times I think these are the hallmarks of success for my mother.

“And her?”

“Her who?”

“HER, your friend’s daughter.”

“Oh, her? She doesn’t have to work.”

As if the greatest accomplishment a woman could strive for is to do nothing.

Ironically, at no time was doing nothing modeled for me. My mother was an ESL teacher for over thirty years, working with an adult population of immigrants. She loved her job, felt fulfilled by it. She was friends with her colleagues (“the girls”), played mah jongg with them, traveled with them. She stayed close with a number of students, including one who had come from Iran and taught us about the Baha’i faith. To further her career, my mother took extra college courses when I was starting college, and her zealous dedication to her studies was inspiring, if a bit daunting. In general, work and its corollaries made up a big part of my mother’s life. And even my grandmother, her mother—though I can’t say she chose to work, seeing as she was a Holocaust survivor who arrived on a foreign shore with a young daughter and a sick husband (who was soon to drop dead)—she was a talented seamstress, and she too took pride in her work. You could see this whenever we told her she had “golden hands.” She had an employer she called, rather formally, “Madame”; in turn, “Madame” called my old Yiddishe grandmother (Miriam, officially; Manya to most) by the oddly foreign moniker, “Mary.” But my grandmother always had a good relationship with “Madame,” and when she and my Zeida took a rare vacation, Madame lent them her Florida condo.

So where did my mother get this idea that a woman should grow up to be a rich man’s housewife? It wasn’t hours of Leave it to Beaver in the 50s, because she didn’t have a TV in those early immigrant days. But maybe she looked at the schmaltz sandwiches her mother packed in her lunch bag and thought that if her father had lived and had made lots of money, her mother would have sent her to school with rye bread stuffed with deli slices instead. Or better yet, my mom could have been one of those lucky kids who went home for lunch. Or maybe my mother’s ideas are more recent, from a time when she came to own not one television, but several, and was able to spend as many hours as she liked watching shows, catching up on that 50s loss, essentially, as the shows haven’t progressed much since the days of Leave it to Beaver, at least not when it comes to women (“Karen, I can’t talk now. I’m watching Desperate Housewives. Don’t you know that Sunday night from 9-10 I’m always watching Desperate Housewives?” “Mom, I finally got the kids to bed and have time to talk! Can’t you just get a DVR?” “Oh, Karen, don’t be silly. In all these years, I’ve never figured out how to record shows with my DVD player. How could I learn to use a DVR?” And she wonders why I feel a need to resort to sarcasm).

Recently, my husband got a job offer at a university in England. I didn’t. But the offer was good, too good to turn down. We decided he should take it. The question was: what would I do across the pond?

“I’ll tell you what you’re not going to do,” my mother said. “You’re not going to leave your job at Princeton to do nothing.” I went through the numbers with my mother; whether I went to England and we all survived on his (paltry academic) salary, or we lived apart and had two (paltry academic) salaries and also two residences, two cars, and a lot of transatlantic travel, we ended up, financially, in the identical place. “That settles it, then,” my mother declared, with a logic she kept to herself, “You’ll stay.”

It’s true—I will stay, for now. That’s because regardless of the finances, I have to work. It’s part of what defines me, just as motherhood and daughterhood and wifehood and sisterhood and friendhood and Jewishness define me (and also dilettantism; I love to learn new things). I rather think that my sister—who financially doesn’t have to work—emotionally has to work, too (she’s a dentist, just as her husband, who could, theoretically, support a work-free lifestyle for my sister, is). It turns out that although both my sister and I both grew up arguing with my mother incessantly—and we continue to argue with her (my sister with her “I’m not being mean—I’m just being honest,” and me with my low sarcasm), making her think something must be wrong with us, we are quite fortunate to have her as our mother. We do well doing as she did.  

Karen E. H. Skinazi, PhD, is a lecturer at Princeton University, a mother of 3 boys, and a literary and cultural critic.


photo credit: mysza831 via photopin cc