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Showing our Daughters the Way

mothers and daughers susan rietano davey

When I entered high school four decades ago (yikes!) the first lesson I learned wasn’t extracted from a bio lab or a book of American poems. It was more of a pop psychology lesson: Being social is easier and more fun than being studious. So, I redirected my energies and focus from books to boys.

This was the late-70s, before weekly progress reports and 24/7 digital school portals, so it took a while for my parents (both trained educators) to pick up on their formerly studious daughter’s about-face. When they did, they seemed more perplexed than upset. Mom took me to lunch one afternoon for a heart-to-heart. Was I struggling? (No.) Was I overwhelmed by such a big school? (Definitely not.) Would I, perhaps, rather go to the all-girls Academy of the Sacred Heart a few towns over? (OMG, are you kidding?!)

I remember the day very well. The place – an outdoor bistro, the lunch – full of greens and delicious, the time – alone with my mom, not rushed, (a real treat in our big family). But, it seems, I blocked out a big piece of that conversation (which my mother shared with me years later, much to my horror).

Sitting across from me in her bistro chair that day, concerned that I might figure this out too late, mom gently reminded me that my high school grades count, that they would predict my college options. “Really?” I asked. (Here comes the embarrassing part) “You got great grades, and you did well in college, and where did it get you? All you do is stay home with us!”

My mom is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the kindest. She would never say something like that – to anyone. But her oldest daughter did say it and, remarkably, she appreciated it. “It was just what I needed to hear,” she explained later. “You were all in school, and I had options to pursue, but I just couldn’t move forward. You gave me the little push I needed.” (I’d call it more of a shove, actually.)

Mom eased back to work, went to graduate school, started a private psychotherapy practice and, at 80 this year, still sees clients thirty hours a week. I pushed her and she flew.

I have heard different versions of this story (minus the ‘mean daughter’ part) from many of my clients over the years. Women with graduate degrees, with years of experience in careers that they loved, who opted out; whose daughters benefitted from having mom at home, but have never seen her work beyond servicing them and their siblings, who can’t even picture her as a professional, who don’t envision her when imagining their own futures. One of Kelley’s and my clients, an engineer, said it eloquently in our testimonial video: “Being an engineer is starting to sound just like a story I tell” – because her daughter has never seen her doing it.

Although financial need and intellectual drive are the typical motivators for a woman’s return to work, I’ve been surprised at how visceral the feeling of “I’ve got to be a better role model for my daughter” is. It comes up regularly in my client intake meetings and in the conferences and seminars I attend. It’s coming up more in the post- #Metoo world.

And it makes sense. Our kids only know what they see and experience. And, like it or not, daughters who are planning out their professional futures, look to their moms for example.

So, without creating another tier of mom-guilt, what can a stay-at-home mom do to be the best role model for her daughter who will soon be heading into the workplace? Here are three ideas:

1 – Go back to work. This is the obvious option. It can benefit the family on many levels from financially to personally. And it’s pretty cool for your daughter when she is tackling college applications and homework, to see mom working on job applications or preparing a work presentation.

2 – Take a course. Maybe you’re not ready for, or even interested in, returning to work, but there is always reason and space to learn a new subject or craft. And a mom who is learning something new, studying, even struggling, is great role model for her daughter who is, most likely, doing the same thing.

3 – If career and school aren’t desirable or feasible, volunteer for something that does not involve your children. PTOs, scouting and youth sports don’t count in this scenario because they are centered on your children. However, pursuing a leadership role in a community organization or a local non-profit does count – and the meetings you’ll attend, the projects you’ll lead, the events you’ll plan, are all great examples of you ‘working,’ even if it isn’t for pay.

And, while you’re at it – talk! Try weaving stories of your prior work life into chats with your daughter. Show her old photos of you in that big suit with big hair. Tell her about your successes and explain that leaving your career to stay home was a tough decision you’re glad you made, and that you hope she has better and more options if and when she becomes a mom herself.

Lastly, when you’re ready to return to work, enlist your daughter’s support. Tap into her native technical skills and good editing eye. Invite her to be your coach.

And when she pushes you, spread your wings and fly.


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