“When Mom Was My Age” is an interview series between daughters and mothers. New interviews appear every Monday. If you would like to participate, contact Jane.
The following interview is with the mother of Amelia B. (age 43).
From daughter Amelia
I am 43 and my mother is 72. I am married and have chosen not to have children.
In 1974, when I was six, and my brother John was five, my parents separated. Eventually they divorced. Before 1974, we had been living overseas on account of my father’s job in management for a manufacturing company. Something went wrong there (I still don’t know what), and after two years my father quit his job suddenly.
We returned to the States. My father couldn’t find work. He and my mom told my brother and me they were separating—my father says it was a mutual decision, my mother says it was his decision.
I remember he got a job moving furniture for Mayflower movers and soon thereafter sort of disappeared from my life. He moved across the country, finally found work, and my brother and I visited him for a few days each summer.
My mother got a job as a teacher, first at a very small Catholic middle school for one year (from which she was laid off), and then at a private school that drew kids from fairly affluent families. I remember my mother working all the time. Eventually she enrolled my brother and I without having to pay the tuition. We had very little money. Until I was old enough to refuse, we shared bath water in the mornings because the plumbing was so bad it took about 45 minutes to draw a bath. (We had no shower.)
As long as I can remember, my mother and I have had an antagonistic relationship. It got even worse after my brother was killed in a car accident when he was 16. For many years, my mom and I did not speak much to one another. I tried to keep my mouth shut during this interview (I am sure this surprised her), but here and there you can probably pick up on the energy between us.
I would say my mother has never been this candid with me, though nothing she said was a surprise. There were things I wanted to edit out, but didn’t. Some of it was hard for me to hear, but I respect her for opening up. It feels like we’ve gained some common ground.
Where were we living then? It was 1981.
We were living in St. Paul [Minnesota], in our stucco house. I’d say the neighborhood was middle-class. We had a huge pine tree in the front yard, which John would climb up, and when I went to call him inside he would hide up there, looking down at me. It took me a while to catch on, but I did.
I had been divorced from your father for six or seven years at that time. I wasn’t dating, though I had for a while before that. You remember, I dated Bob for several years. I was still walking angry. I did not like the divorce, I did not want to be single. I did not believe in … anyway, I was an independent woman, and I had to be. It was hard on you and it was hard on John.
I remember John’s teacher [a male teacher] saying, “You know, you are John’s teacher,” and I looked at him and I said, “I beg your pardon, I am his mother, and you are his teacher. I will try to do the best I can, but so must you.”
So it was a hard time emotionally, a very stressful time.
What made it stressful for you?
The fact that we had no … probably the fact that we weren’t a foursome. We weren’t who we started out to be, we weren’t who I pretended that we would be as a married couple.
Was it the better way to be living at that time, considering your father’s inclination to go away and not be a father and a husband? It was probably better, but it was a long time for me to sort to grasp those handles and take charge. I was pretty scared. I think I was pretty scared all the time.
Can you describe your work and a typical day?
I was a grade school teacher. I was lucky enough to be in something, and good enough to be in something, that I loved doing. I loved being related to [the private school she taught at], but before that the middle school. [The middle school] taught me I was really an educator, because it wasn’t so much what you knew, but it was what you could turn kids on to. When I interviewed for the primary school position, the principal asked me if I’d be willing to team-teach, and I had no clue what that meant, and I said, “Absolutely, of course.” [Laughs.] Because I wanted to have a job. And so I became a team teacher.
And I absolutely got better and better at it. I was there for 27 years. I think at first I scared quite a few kids. Because I had come from a school where if you looked at the wrong side of the blackboard at the wrong time of the day, somebody might hit you over the head, so I was really nonverbally on cue, and I think I scared the living daylights out of some of my first students.
But I survived, and I learned a lot and I got to be really good at what I did and I became an expert on teaching math to young children.
My typical day—well, I got up very early. I had breakfast with the kids.
I don’t remember having breakfast with you, Mom. Weren’t you gone before I got up? This was when I was in 8th/9th grade.
That’s probably true. Maybe we were a little bit more separate. But I think we sometimes left together, didn’t we?
Well, by that time I was at a different campus.
And you didn’t give me a ride to school.
No, I didn’t. How’d you get to school?
From our street all the way to the school?
Oh. [Silence. She puts her head in her hands.]
Anyway, there are some things that are sort of dull, you know, blacked out, and that’s one of them. I don’t remember you walking to school. I remember when you were younger and we were at the same campus, we’d go together, the three of us.
But sometimes I walked home by myself.
And sometimes you took the bus without your mother’s permission. I remember that—you told me with great pride that you had taken the city bus.
Anyway, my typical day, as you have sometimes reminded me, was all about school. Went early, and came home around 4:30. Some nights later, if there were meetings at school, events with parents. I also worked big time on the weekends.
Anyway, usually, 4:30, after school, was very hard on me. I always remember that, it was very hard. Then I would cook, and I always made dinner and we always ate dinner together. I mean, we ate things I wouldn’t eat now, but overall we ate well. It was our closest time together as a family. As soon as the table was cleared, I started on school work. Oh, I did school work! Absolutely. All the time. And sometimes I did it again in the morning before I left for school. Some nights I went for a run after dinner.
I had started jogging at that time. My gynecologist said to me, Start running. And I said Run? Run when everything is going down down down? I really learned to love running. I was also getting my master’s degree. So some nights I had class.
Do you remember what was going on for me and John at that time?
Did you feel involved in our education?
Not much, I was not good at that. Not at all, I was just terrible.
So you put your children into this elite school, and then …
Disregarded them? Yes. I mean no. When I said I was fearful in terms of being an independent mother, that was part of the fear. I was not good with that. I was not resourceful in terms of getting support from you.
This brings up things that I know I had a hard time with. I had blinders on. I’ll do what I have to do and I’ll do it really well—as in being an educator—but not necessarily doing other things. Part of that I think comes from my father and my mother. My mother wasn’t nurturing. I know I worked hard. On school. But I don’t think I worked as hard on my beautiful children.
What did you worry most about? What were your concerns for yourself, the world, your children, your family, parents, siblings?
I think every day was a true nit and grit day for me—left foot, right foot. My biggest thing was survival. I wished to survive. I mean, I wasn’t afraid of dying, of starving, but emotionally I think I was, a, I was probably a weak spirit, a very weak spirit, because I, because people thought I was so strong, so capable, so this and so that, and very often I’d come home and cry. Because I didn’t have what I thought was necessary to be whole. And I had a lot of anger at your father, which I didn’t necessarily explode about. But I felt left, abandoned.
What did you worry about for your children?
Well, the whole idea was just to survive. I mean, that fact that you did well in school …
Mom, I didn’t do well in school.
You did well in some parts.
I was wildly inconsistent.
Okay, you were inconsistent. And your brother was too. Well, I think it’s called a blind eye. I had a blind spot. I wanted to look as if we were surviving, and we looked as if we were surviving, so, we were. You know? And I don’t think I thought about it much. But when I look back on things now … [She shakes her head.]
Was there anything going on in the world that worried you?
[Long silence.] Not much, I went day by day. I didn’t read the paper. I didn’t have time. I voted, but I didn’t vote for Reagan. Hmm. I wanted a man in my life, I’ve always wanted a man in my life, so, nothing’s changed there, but I think those five years I didn’t date, it was a healthier time for me, a better time, but I don’t think I did that much more for our family.
I always believed we were a family, I did feel strongly about that. I was worried about my savings. I didn’t have any savings. I called my sister and told her, and she said, you have two children and you have the house, that’s a lot. And from that day forward I started to save. So that was my first step in terms of thinking about the future.
I think you’ve addressed this next question to some degree, but how do you look back on that age now?
It’s very painful. But I have always felt I did the best I could. I had been raised to be a mother and a wife, and that’s what I was, and then when I wasn’t anymore, it was a whole new challenge. It was a good challenge and I’m glad I had it. But it was very scary.
And if there’s one word that fits that whole period, it’s fear. It’s very interesting looking back. I don’t think I was as invigorated about you and your brother as I was about education, my work. It’s very good that we’re talking about it. Are we done yet?
Yes. Thanks for talking with me.
You’re welcome. I’m tired—it’s time to go to bed and read.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.