This one is hard. Normally, I love to celebrate Mother’s Day. This year I am mourning two great losses. For the first time in my life, I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day without either of my mothers. My own birth mother passed away peacefully, in my arms, on January 21, 2022. Two weeks later, my beloved mother-in-law (who I’d known since I was 18) also passed away peacefully, as I sat by her side, holding her hand.
While neither death was unexpected, they both came too soon. Not because our (my husband and my) moms were too young (they were 85 and 80, respectively), but because, in the words of a dear colleague, “forever isn’t long enough to say goodbye.” Nor is it enough time to thank them for all that they did for us as mothers during an era that limited their own opportunities.
Our moms’ background stories differed, but they both faced challenges during their childhoods. Both emerged as strong women, despite those challenges. Both were also from an era that did not afford women enough opportunities, no matter how smart they were. My mother was a scholarship student who graduated from Stanford and Harvard in the late 1950s. There were few career opportunities for her once she decided to have children. My mother-in-law graduated at the top of her class in high school but didn’t have a path to college financially (she married a Naval cadet instead). Both had three kids and became homemakers. This allowed their husbands to put their careers first, unencumbered by caregiving responsibilities.
Undaunted by society’s limitations, both of our moms went back to work when their kids got a little older. The only jobs they could do, while maintaining their roles at home (an unspoken requirement), were jobs that undervalued their intelligence and underpaid their worth. They soldiered on, finding other modes of fulfillment. But it rankled, particularly in later years when my mother-in-law got divorced.
Being a close observer of their lives and limited choices, I thought long and hard about whether I should have children. When I married at 23, it was a foregone conclusion for most observers (of course I would have kids!). But not for me – in fact, I made sure to remove the words about having children from our wedding vows. Even though I thought I might want to have kids, I didn’t want to have to give up what our mothers had given up. Fortunately, thanks to the battles fought by many of the early feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, times had changed by the 1990s.
Our moms welcomed that change. It was too late for them, but they were happy to see my generation benefit. And it meant they got to become grandmothers (because we decided to say “yes” to having kids). To my great joy, both of our moms supported my being the kind of mom who “worked outside the home.” They didn’t make comments about how “poorly” our children might turn out if they were in daycare (a common criticism at the time, and something I had feared they might say since I wasn’t following their path). They traveled cross-country regularly to visit us and their grandchildren. And they were very proud of my career.
The years we enjoyed with them as grandmothers were some of our best times. It’s poignant for me now to see them smiling with our children in the photos that cycle through the e-frame in our family room. (What I wouldn’t give for it to be 10 years ago, when all of our kids still lived at home and our moms were healthy!)
In their later years, our moms became more vocal as feminists. They could see, is spite of the meaningful changes that had been made in their lifetime, it wasn’t enough. The struggles were still too hard for most women. The career opportunities my generation had obtained had a downside for those who wanted to have children — they did not come with sufficient support for caregivers, paid family leave, and more. So, our moms supported feminist causes. They stepped up to help where they could.
Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election was devastating for both of our moms. Their anger knew no bounds. My mother marched with me in Washington DC at the first Women’s March in 2017. She was 80 years old. It was her first protest. My mother-in-law became a diehard fan of MSNBC and watched non-stop, looking for signs of hope.
And when my own mother began to suffer from dementia, my mother-in-law supported me by attending every single one of my virtual book talks in 2020. She stood in and cheered me on for both of them.
As much as I miss them, I’m glad they don’t have to suffer through this week’s news about the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade which would have brought further devastation to them. They would have remembered all too well the days before abortions were legal in the US.
To that end, and in their honor, I have recommitted myself to the fight for women’s rights and our collective health. I will continue to champion the themes of universal healthcare and antiracism that I wrote about in Marching Toward Coverage. And I will step up my support for pro-choice women candidates. These are just some of the ways I will be thanking my moms this Mother’s Day and ensuring that their lives have a meaningful legacy.
Sandra Elder Day
August 20, 1936 – January 21, 2022
Kathleen Kelcy Churchill
October 9, 1941 – February 4, 2022