So I’ve known my mom my entire life. You’d think I’d know all of the really important things that happened to her after spending this long getting to know her. But today she dropped a bombshell right in the middle of breakfast.
I had just finished commenting on how much of a role model she was for me – choosing to start her own business cleaning houses, making a career that fit the needs of her family. She didn’t work for someone else – she placed ads in local newspapers and slowly built up her own thriving business with loyal clientele. It took courage, and she was really good at it. She was happy – I remember her constantly whistling while she cleaned the homes of her clients. She had others who worked for her, too – including, at times, me – a very unwilling teenage daughter. She never complained that she cleaned homes – she embraced the opportunity where she found it, jumped in with both feet and grew it into a business with steady customers for over twenty years.
We were at breakfast this morning at a local restaurant – a date we keep regularly – and in the middle of our reminiscing over the “good old days” she shared something I never knew about her.
“You know one of my clients once offered to set me up in my own business – I could have been the first Molly Maids?”
No. Not, actually I did not know that.
“Yes,” she said, “He used to say, ‘Pat, you shouldn’t be cleaning houses. You could be running a bigger company doing this. I have money. Why don’t you let me set you up in business?’ She stopped for a moment. “But, well…” her voice trailed off into silence.
“Why didn’t you take him up on it?” I asked. I had no idea she’d been offered such an amazing opportunity. I knew the client who she was referring to. He was wealthy, grounded and a kind man. He was always so respectful to us when were in his home – treating us as guests instead of “the help”.
My mother was quiet. I could see the memories, the conversations of a different life than the one she had now. Sadness washed over her face as she resurrected a memory of lost opportunities, broken dreams. Finally she spoke. “It was different then. It would have meant a lot of changes for our family, and it would have been asking a lot of your father. It didn’t … it didn’t work out.”
There was so much more said in what she didn’t say. She was a ‘fifties wife, part of a generation of women who were expected to be at home serving the needs of husband and family – a stereotype that held so many women back from dreams and opportunities just because of being born into a different generation. I was reminded in that moment of a friend whose mother had recently passed away. The obituary, in its stated facts of her life, told the same story – a woman who, in the middle of her pursuit of her PhD, walked away from it all to raise her family.
Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing – nothing at all – wrong with that choice. There is a lot that is right in it. Love of family, the joy of raising children, of making life easier for one’s spouse – all excellent reasons to choose a certain way of life. There was a time in my own life when it was all I wanted for myself. I have deep respect and admiration for women who choose that path.
But in that conversation, it became so very real – the price that almost an entire generation of women have paid so that our generation can be the women we are – forging new ground as more and more of us become founders of our own companies, CEO’s, leaders of major corporations and in government. Gender bias is still rampant, and I’ve seen more than my share of men behaving like schoolyard bullies towards women who are breaking down barriers. But things are changing, and momentum is growing.
My mother was the first person who invested in my company. “Because we believe in you,” she said the first time she handed me a check written out to APPCityLife, Inc. I wasn’t sure I deserved her faith back then. And after today, I realize that this is not just my dream. I am in this for her, too – for the dreams my mom chose to forsake for the peace and stability of our family, for the price she paid as a 50’s wife. That’s a lot of responsibility, but she’s taught me well. She had the courage to take something that could have been a drudgery and turned it into a thriving business. I have a great role model to follow.