If you went to see HFL’s production of Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical you likely left amazed by two things. First, the talent of the actors. Let me say a word about these students. Yes “a” word. A single word. One word that rules them all.
It was perhaps that very talent that leads to the second notable take away from the event: The primacy of motherhood regarding the character of Winifred Banks. Yes, the original Disney movie touched on this, but during the era of budding feminism, it was downplayed in favor of focusing on the fallibilities of George Banks. In the musical, however, it stands front and center. Perhaps I’ll devote a separate column to an analysis of that, but this week it’s all about mothers – specifically, the mothers in my life.
I’ve been blessed by having wonderful mothers as far back as I can remember: My grandmother, my mother, and my wife. Yes, technically only one qualifies as my “mother,” but they’ve each exhibited traits of motherhood that are as American as apple pie.
This was no easy feat for my grandmother, who emigrated from Italy when she was three years old. Of course, as a young immigrant, my grandmother had the advantage of spending nearly all of her formative years exposed to America, but in terms of the Ideal it stood for and the Dream it promised. Her teenage infatuation with Rudolph Valentino had more to do with her being ensconced in American pop culture than his being of Italian descent (although I suppose that didn’t hurt).
As you might imagine with a woman from that era, she was an expert manager. You may read of “notable” woman from America’s past who blazed new trails for their gender. But, as with most trailblazers, these women were the exception to the rule, not only in their historical accomplishments, but also in their generally more affluent status. And though history book freely describe them as “heroes,” women like my grandmother were no less heroic.
Actually, let me double down on that: Women like my grandmother were more heroic. Why? Because they didn’t have the advantage of social standing to accomplish what they accomplished. They achieved their success – no matter how modest, no matter how great – in the traditional American way: through grit, determination, and not a small dose of wile.
If you asked my grandmother, she would have told you any discrimination she experienced was because she was Italian, not because she was a woman. She viewed her womanhood as a strategic advantage. Truth be told, she knew most people (men and women) viewed her as an uneducated immigrant woman. While it was true she didn’t graduate high school, she was as devilishly smart as they come. She purposely never let anyone know (a fact she secretly revealed to me and my brother when we worked at their pizza stand just because we saw her outsmart some “government” assessor who was trying to steal money from her – and she was so good he didn’t even know he was outsmarted!).
It wouldn’t surprise if one of the greatest joys of my grandmother was seeing my mother march across the stage to receive her Master’s Degree diploma in Home Economics. Think about this for a moment. My grandmother, who diligently managed both the family’s household and its business affairs, never received any formal recognition. She raised her daughter, no doubt, to master these same duties. By the time my mother’s name was called to receive, she was already in the process of raising three children and exploring her talents professionally as both a teacher and a culinary innovator.
With this impressive resume behind her, my mother did something at once more heroic than my grandmother’s deeds and that likely became one of my grandmother’s proudest moments. In the height of the “Woman’s Liberation” era, at a time when pressure from her peers was the greatest, my mother took an action that put her at odds with her feminist friends: She decided to continue to be a devoted mother.
Don’t get me wrong. Unlike Winifred Banks, she never had any self-doubt about the importance of being a mother first. While we did see Mary Poppins when it was originally released, the aforementioned nuances never really hit our radar. Well, at least it never hit my radar. Then again, I was only four. And I kinda was more into Dick Van Dyke’s humorous character Bert than Julie Andrew’s Mary. And I despised the kids. They were so bad!
Like many other unsung women of the 1960s and 1970s, my mother faithfully placed the priorities of her family above all else. Like her mother before her, that didn’t mean forsaking her talents. While my nuclear family had no businesses to claim as theirs (and my youthful entrepreneurial affairs don’t count), my mother found other ways to direct her organizational and creative talents. She became a vital part of those groups that represent the spine of any vibrant community. She was President of PTA, Den Mother in Cub Scouts, and was regularly tapped to lead when major event planning was needed. In this, my mother taught me by example the ideal of good citizen behavior doesn’t rest on one’s resume, but on something greater.
Yet, no matter how bravely she swam against the current, she was nonetheless swimming against the current. America was changing, and the brutal peer pressure she faced to conform was quickly replaced by the outright expectation that women had no choice but to define themselves by some professional proxy.
Don’t misread me. There’s nothing wrong with a woman (or a man) defining herself (or himself) by their career. The problem lies in there being no choice but to do that. When the time came for my wife to begin her journey as a mother, she was quite clear in her intent. She would not recognize this lack of choice. Instead, she plunged “full speed ahead” into full-time motherhood. And she wasn’t alone. In fact, she first met Michele Shone (who own community heroism is profiled elsewhere on these pages) at an organizational meeting of the local chapter of what was then a new group for moms. It was called F.E.M.A.L.E., which stood for “Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge.”
Proving the pendulum always swings back, these women were indeed on the vanguard of a new re-definition of a woman’s role in society. They planned to display (and their swelling numbers showed this) a spirit in which women choosing to be full-time mothers should be respected as much as any other choice a woman could make. This retro-motherhood was, as they say, the new feminism.
Alas, it was short-lived, at least on a national level. The acronym “FEMALE” soon gave way to a new name:
“Mothers and More.” Why the name change? Apparently the bean-counters took over the organization. Rather than focus on glorifying full-time mothers, the powers that be decided to focus on increasing membership numbers. They recognized full-time mothers represented a limited market. In order to expand the market, the group needed to attract all mothers, included those that chose to continue with their careers in either a part-time or full-time capacity. Thus, the phrase “Formerly Employed” became unnecessary.
Unfortunately, this change symbolized the loss of a sense of mission, and the organization never achieved the membership numbers it had at the height of its popularity prior to the name change. Mothers and More as a nation organization recently announced it will be closing in the summer of 2016.
There’s a general lesson in that for all organizations seeking to grow beyond their area of expertise, beyond their mission focus.
But there’s another, more important lesson. While the original group lost its sense of mission, individual members with that group – like my wife – did not. They continued to devote themselves to their children, but also shared their many organizational talents with the community as a whole. Doing the right thing, not because it wins accolades, but because you believe it is right, represents the basic definition of “hero.”
And there are many mothers, spanning the generations, who share this honor. This Mother’s Day, don’t just give mom a card and serve her brunch. Pin a medal on her.
And give her a big hug!