In the end, it became far more than that. The summer before I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, my mother and I went to Europe for three weeks. My father had worked for the same company since he was a young man, and his life savings were invested in its stock. That company had just been taken over by a conglomerate whose stock price suddenly plummeted while my mother and I were away. By the time we got home, the stock was worth next to nothing. Our family's substantial net worth had simply vanished.
My mother couldn't believe that my father had just watched this catastrophe unfold, doing nothing to salvage our assets. How could he have been so passive when confronted by a colossal disaster that would forever alter our lives? When the stock price began its nosedive, why hadn't he sold our shares? My father, who assumed that it would eventually recover, had no answer. Nor did he have an income; nearly two decades older than my mother, he had recently retired and was no longer earning the handsome salary that had paid for my expensive riding camp and Ivy League education. But my mother was still working, so she became the breadwinner, as she had been for her own mother. Her income kept our family afloat when all else failed.
As a child, I didn't really focus on the destructive role that women's economic dependency had played in this linked chain of family dramas—but I surely got the message that you couldn't depend on men to take care of you. I also understood that when you asserted control over your own life, it made you strong and free.
As a professional woman during the 1950s and '60s, my mother was ahead of her time in many ways. But she was also a mother, and so—conforming obediently to the classic models for female behavior—she adjusted her work schedule according to what she thought was best for her husband and children at a given moment, as so many women continue to do today. The end result was that despite a long career, she suffered a significant financial penalty, having sacrificed her own economic interests to those of her family.
When I entered seventh grade at the age of ten, she left her job to become a full-time mom again, because she had heard from other mothers that junior high school was a difficult transition for many kids. Having started school early and then skipped a grade, I was at least two years younger than most of my classmates, so my mother was particularly concerned about how I would adapt to an adolescent environment.
As it turned out, I was fine, and after a year as a stay-at-home mother in an empty house, she went back to work. A decade later, when I got engaged to my first husband, she left that job as well—"to plan your wedding," she said. Six months of intensive planning ensued; the wedding was beautiful, and when it was over, my mother got another job.
Even after her children were grown, however, she continued to subordinate her career to what she perceived as her family's needs. After my father retired, my mother felt that she should be more available to spend time with her increasingly elderly husband. Although she had been a children's book editor for many years, she decided to return to the job of copy editor, which paid less but had predictable hours that enabled her to leave the office promptly at 5:00 p.m. and hurry home. She spent the final phase of her working life in the same job she had held during the 1950s.