Five years after my mother and grandmother sat together in that sunny garden, I sat in the audience as my mother, who was being honored as the Moseley Scholar of the Year at Skidmore College, delivered a lecture on the topic of literary biography. I listened spellbound as my mother spoke with wisdom, passion and authority, and found myself choking back tears as the standing-room-only audience broke into thunderous applause. These tears reflected my tremendous pride in my mother’s accomplishments, and my recognition that the woman I recalled chafing at the bit as a housewife, crying in frustration over crumbled tart shells and chaotic cabinets, burning the soup she was stirring as she read Ulysses, had found a domain in which she could truly shine.
I would not do justice, though, to my own profession (my Ph.D. is in clinical psychology) if I described my tears only as tears of joy. I think that I cried, too, because I was the child who ate the burned soup, whose possessions disappeared in those overflowing cabinets, who viewed Henry James, the subject of my mother’s doctoral dissertation, as a flesh-and-blood rival for my mother’s love and attention. I also cried because six months earlier I had left my prestigious job as a staff psychologist at the University of Michigan Medical Center to pursue, as my mother puts it, “the mommy track,” and I recognized that I myself would be giving no honorary lectures for the foreseeable future.
Although my decision to leave my university position was made slowly and carefully, the moment that solidified this decision arrived on a night when, having thrown Happy Meals and crayons at my then five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, I spent the evening on the phone monitoring the status of a suicidal adolescent boy whom I had sent to the emergency room earlier that day. When I finally tucked my daughter into bed that night, she said plaintively, “Mommy, it seems like you care about that bad boy at work more than you care about us.” I am sure that “bad boy” never realized what he had in common with Henry James, but I realized then what I share with my mother, both positively and negatively, and, more important, what my daughter shared with me.
I am grateful to my mother for fostering my intellectual development. However, it was my grandmother’s example I followed after I left my job, when I organized my own closets and baked what seemed like an endless series of cupcakes for school events for which I finally had the time to volunteer. As a child, I had been calmed and reassured by the domestic rituals my grandmother performed; as long as she was in the laundry room folding sheets, or in the kitchen baking mandelbrot, it seemed nothing terrible or unpredictable could happen in the world. I wanted my children to grow up in such order. I also wanted my children to feel that they were at the center of our home, rather than to feel pushed to the side by their parents’ work, whether that work was professional or domestic (as my grandmother’s was). I realized that, despite my long-standing rivalry with Henry James, I had gotten more of my mother’s time and energy than she had gotten from her own mother, who chose to focus on having the cleanest floors and the best made-from-scratch fish cakes rather than on the needs and feelings of her children.
My hope is to find the steep, curving and elusive path that combines the nurturing of my family with my own career development, and even allows me time for other things, things that make life fun. I hope that there will be time in the future for me to follow my mother’s example and write a book or give an honorary lecture. I confess, however, that my ambition to shine professionally is much less strong than my mother’s, perhaps because I didn’t have to fight tradition.
I wish I could see into the future and trace the path of my own daughter, now twelve, who speaks blithely of wanting to have lots of children while working as a veterinarian and being a sculptor and novelist on the side. My daughter snuggles under the afghan my grandmother crocheted for her and admires its even stitches, but she also loves to inspect the book jacket of the biography my mother wrote. I hope, too, that my own hodgepodge of choices will make sense to her, though I know all too well that it is necessary for each daughter, as my mother quotes from Adrienne Rich’s poem, to look at her mother and “grow another way.”
Andrea Goodman Hansell received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Michigan. The wife of a clinical psychologist and mother of a twelve-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, she has a part-time clinical practice and also works part-time as a psychologist for a private school.