Women with Ph.D.’s and Their Mothers

Two generations of women describe the tensions

A narrow bookcase was the first object I always noted when I entered the small, immaculate apartment of my mother this bookcase contained the “treasures” she carefully had culled from a much larger collection of her books when she moved into an assisted living community some years ago. Among those volumes were a tattered housewife’s guide to celebrating the Jewish holidays; a worn book summarizing the plots of the operas she loves; a number of novels and memoirs by women such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Jean Stafford, Bella Chagall and May Sarton that I had given her over the years; a scrapbook of family memorabilia; and, on the top shelf, copies of assorted publications written by her twin daughters and three of her granddaughters, all of whom had earned doctorates during her life time.

To appreciate what those Ph.D.s signified to my mother, it is necessary to know something about her own history. In 1908, when she was five, she emigrated from a shtetl in Russia to a small town in Pennsylvania. Although she had wanted to become a teacher, there was no money for college, so she worked as a bookkeeper until she married my father, another poor immigrant from Russia. At that time she was earning more than he, but he insisted that it was the man’s job to support the family. Somewhat reluctantly, she settled into domesticity. Slowly he built up what would become a very successful business, fulfilling the American Dream for them and their three daughters. To her today, the educational achievements of her daughters and granddaughters are sources of pride. She not only displays our publications but reads them, and she is still pleased when we bring her books we have enjoyed or when we describe to her our current intellectual pursuits.

I purposely chose to begin this narrative with a positive image of my mother and her progeny, since I would like to think of her as a benignant presence in my life, someone who was unfailingly attentive to my needs, supportive of my aspirations, and willing to let me explore a path that was different from hers. Yet, during my childhood this same mother was also the one who insisted that I clean my messy room instead of playing “Go to the Head of the Class”; the person who was more concerned about my manners than my math scores; the frightening adult who exploded in anger whenever she discovered I had been reading in the bathroom, to which I retreated regularly to escape her incessant demands that I help with the housework. When I myself became a housewife, it was her image as the proverbial Jewish “balabusta,” a housewife par excellence, with which I wrestled when attempting to establish a very different identity.

Like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver and Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, I often was angry during my childhood. I was frequently chastised by my mother for preferring play to housework, books to dishcloths. I vividly recall the “game” my mother invented to suppress my anger: She would cajole me to open the lid of the kitchen garbage pail, throw my angry face away, and come away smiling. While I enjoyed the amused response this garnered from members of my family, I recognize now that my mother’s attempts to short-circuit my angry outbursts allowed her to disregard the reasons, some of them legitimate, for my anger. Recently, at a family gathering, my mother mentioned that my twin sister frequently used to try to intercede on my behalf, explaining to my mother that I was not “bad,” merely misunderstood. But to my mother, a compulsive housekeeper, a daughter whose priorities differed from hers was not to be tolerated. Having raised three children of my own, I can now appreciate how easily rampant disorder can impede the smooth functioning of a household; moreover, I can understand why keeping the house neat was so important to my mother, who had grown up in a cramped, shabby apartment behind her mother’s store. Nevertheless, my mother’s obsession with the mundane details of housekeeping and her insistence that her three daughters, too, spend much of their time tidying the nest despite the fact that we had full-time household help was a great source of tension for my sisters and me.

When I picture my mother during my childhood, I usually recall an irritable woman, frowning as she cooked the meals or counted the sheets that were returned from the laundry. She did not tell jokes—my father’s specialty—nor can I picture her reading any of the books she had ordered from the Book of-the-Month Club or telling us stories or discussing with us what we had learned in school. Until we were grown, my sisters and I were not aware of our mother’s interest in opera, the theater, and art. I was surprised to learn from her recently that sometimes, when she was feeling overwhelmed by her responsibilities, she would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway to spend the day in an art gallery or a museum, for when she returned home, she never described those solitary excursions to us. And when she would take my sisters and me to the city, she dragged us from counter to counter in Macy’s or Lord & Taylor; not to an art exhibit or a theater.

I am certain that my mother was pleased when my twin sister and I were accepted by an Ivy League women’s college. In the album on her bookshelf are the letters of commendation about us that she and my father received from the Dean of Students each year. In my own album I also have a telegram saying “PROUD OF YOUR BEING PHI BATED NEWS APPRECIATED AND CELEBRATED” that they sent to us from Bermuda following our election to Phi Beta Kappa. However, I cannot recall her ever questioning me about what I planned to do with my splendid education after I graduated from Wellesley College in 1955.

My twin sister had married at the end of junior year; so did I a year later. Only two days elapsed between the sunny June day in 1955 that I marched down the aisle to receive my undergraduate diploma and the day I walked down the aisle in a bridal gown. Delighted that the last of her daughters, the “difficult one,” was married, my mother anticipated, as I myself did, that I would stay at home to take care of my children once I became a mother. I tried my hand at teaching high school, found it less than satisfying, and then settled into domesticity and awaited the birth of my first child.

What propelled me back to graduate school when I was the mother of a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son was the desire to teach literature at the college level and to create a life for myself that I thought would be more intellectually challenging than my mother’s. My husband, then an overworked medical resident, was home very little, and though I enjoyed being a mother to our two very sweet toddlers, I nevertheless longed to be part of a community of intellectuals. I often have been asked, “Which women were your role models when you decided to pursue a doctorate?” My mother certainly did not serve in that capacity, nor was she very supportive when I told her what I planned to do. The only positive female role models I recall were the aunt of a college boyfriend who, I was told, had earned a doctorate in art history some decades earlier, and two married women professors with children who had taught at Wellesley College when I was a student there. Much closer to me than any of these women with Ph.D.s was my own twin sister, who had begun a doctoral program in the History of Ideas right after college. During the six years she had been enrolled in the program, however, she spent most of her time attending to the needs of her doctor-husband and two toddlers; she still recalls her own turmoil during that period because she could not decide whether she wanted her graduate studies to be anything more than a hobby.

My mother and I reached the nadir of our relationship ten years after I returned to graduate school, when I finally completed the requirements for a doctorate in English and American Literature at Brandeis University. In the spring of 1971 I returned to Brandeis to defend my dissertation on Henry James. My mother had not often been in a position to assist me with child-care. However, on the day that I was scheduled to defend my dissertation, I asked her to stay with my three children, the youngest of whom was seven years old. One of my most bitter memories is my mother’s reaction when I returned home triumphantly that evening. A friend who had arrived at my house with a celebratory bottle of champagne invited my mother to join in a toast to me. Sounding annoyed, she called from my sons’ untidy bedroom, “I don’t drink champagne” and refused to come downstairs. Was she angry at having been left in charge of my somewhat chaotic household, whose closets and drawers I had neglected while I was trying to complete my dissertation? It is also possible that she was threatened by the realization that I had accomplished what she herself never had had the freedom to attempt; or as I can well understand now that I myself am a grandmother, she simply might have been too tired by her day of babysitting to join in the festivities. Whatever her reasons, so disheartened was I by her response that I did not have the courage then—or later—to confront her about what I thought of as one of the more chilling moments in our mother-daughter relationship.

One summer, my mother agreed to take a writing class for senior citizens I was teaching at Skidmore College. Although my mother insisted at the outset that she did not want to feel obligated to do any of the writing assignments, before the week was over she did write two very fine essays that also revealed a surprising similarity between her sentence structure and my own. During that week, I very much enjoyed sharing my teaching life with her, and I believe she enjoyed taking part in the course. On the day the class concluded, however, she began to make hostile comments about my housekeeping. This time a mature adult rather than a sulky child confronted her. I reminded her that she herself had witnessed how demanding my teaching schedule had been. “Where would I have found the time to clean the house during this very busy week?” I asked her. I suspect that her criticizing me was not only a response to my less-than-neat house; it also probably reflected her need to re-establish the hierarchical mother-daughter relationship that she might have felt was undermined when her daughter became her teacher. Nevertheless, after I calmly defended my behavior, she apologized and thanked me warmly for arranging to have her participate in my class.

No doubt many of my acquaintances see me as that enviable person who has “had it all”: a satisfying career and the pleasures of family life; an office of my own and a comfortable suburban home; friends and colleagues. I often remind myself, moreover, how fortunate I was to have had a first-rate education, the necessary funds to pay for graduate school and babysitters, and the opportunity to teach at an excellent college. Yet never having reconciled fully those two competing personae within myself, the “balabusta” and the English professor, I often have felt that I was being pulled apart. My left hand forms the matzah balls for chicken soup while my right hand jots down ideas for this essay; my left hand plants zinnias like the ones in my mother’s garden while my right hand turns the pages of a literary journal; my left hand writes a letter to my granddaughter while my right hand corrects a student’s paper Neither of my two selves ever is fully satisfied with the results of my labors—and both of my selves too often feel exhausted. My twin sister, now a professor of Humanities, often says the same.

Would my own experience have been much different if my mother, too, had earned a Ph.D. and subsequently had had are warding career? My own daughter, Andrea, did not have the same hesitation about returning to graduate school that I did, and I believe I have been much more supportive of her efforts to pursue a career than my mother was of mine. Nevertheless, my daughter has experienced similar conflicts to my own about women’s roles and responsibilities. Both she and her husband are clinical psychologists, but so stressful did she find full-time work during the years when their two children were small that she ultimately opted for the “mommy track,” working only part-time and dedicating much of her energy to domestic and child-centered activities. Andrea is happy that she now has more time to devote to her children as well as to her home, one which more closely resembles the tidy apartment of her grandmother than the cluttered house in which my husband and I still live.

Two years ago my 91-year-old mother fractured her hip, and now is confined to a wheelchair. I am trying to let go of those bitter feelings about her that I harbored for so long. On my shelf I have a video-cassette recording of a party my friends gave for me in 1990 to celebrate the publication of the feminist literary biography I had written about the writer Jean Stafford. In this video, my white-haired, beautiful, gracious mother and I are shown sitting side by side in the sunny garden of my hosts on a blooming June afternoon. Surrounded by other members of our family, my friends, and my colleagues, both my mother and I are smiling.

Charlotte Margolis Goodman, Ph.D., is a Professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N. Y. She is the author of a feminist literary biography, Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart, and numerous articles. The wife of a retired physician, she has a grown daughter, two grown sons, and five grandchildren.