Why It’s So Important for Daughters to See Their Parents Working

It's an apprenticeship in resilience.

mom daughters hard workCourtesy Amanda Robb

My father died when I was four years old. He was only 27 and had been working as an assistant city attorney in Reno, Nevada, for two years. I only mention that last part because it meant he wasn’t vested in the state employees’ pension plan, so my mom didn’t get any survivor’s benefits. She was 28, pregnant with my younger sister, and unemployed. She’d been forced out of her job as a speech therapist when it’d become apparent that she was expecting. In the early 1970s, the majority of U.S. school districts forced pregnant women to take unpaid leave, or just fired them when their “condition” became obvious. Even today, women still aren’t equal to men in these 16 ways.

I don’t have a lot of specific memories from that time, but I do remember two moments from these terrible months very clearly. One was my mother telling me that my father had died. I wept, understanding that this meant we could no longer be with him, but I wondered if maybe we could phone him. “By long-distance,” I suggested. When my mom finally shook her head no, I knew something no child should ever know. Anything can happen.

The other thing I remember happened shortly after my sister was born. While she nursed, I was tight at my mother’s side. “We’ll be okay,” my mom said. “I can work.” It didn’t matter that I had the only the vaguest conception of what “work” was … something parents did while kids were at preschool? But my mom had me at “okay.” I’d been hopelessly sinking and, magically, a floatie appeared.

Mom at work

daughters mom workingCourtesy Amanda Robb

Three months after my sister was born, a speech therapist’s position in the local school district opened, and my mother got the job. Somehow, that spring, we moved out of my father’s childhood bedroom—which my mom, sister, and I had been sharing at my paternal grandparents’ home since my dad had died—and into our own little house. The next fall, I started kindergarten, walking to a neighborhood school with a little posse, just like a normal kid.

By that fall, my mom was not only working full-time during the day, but also taking classes in the evening, so she could qualify for a higher salary with her school district, and working extra jobs. So, along with night school, my mother got a part-time job doing speech therapy at a veterans’ hospital, then she became a wallpaper hanger, then a waitress, then a “graveyard” (overnight) shift casino blackjack dealer on the weekends. All along the way, she also worked at what are now called “gig” jobs during school vacations, including teaching summer school and sign language.

My mom working 80+ hours a week wasn’t easy or pleasant or ennobling. My sister and I were tossed from grandparents to friends’ moms to babysitters to corners of rooms where our mother was teaching. Our house was a mess. I got scolded by teachers for failing to return field-trip permission slips. My mother was often exhausted—and exhaustion made her no fun at best, scary at worst. But I also learned the most important lesson of my life: Work = survival.

A time when women didn’t work

mom daughters workingCourtesy Amanda Robb

Like most girls who grew up in the 1950s, my mother never expected to have a “career.” She went to college because that’s what the daughters of upwardly mobile families (or those, like my mother’s, hoping to become upwardly mobile) did. In other words, university campuses were where the best potential husbands were. My mom studied education because it was a major her father deemed appropriate for a young lady. Though lisps and tongue-thrusts didn’t fascinate my mom at all, she was proud that she could motivate kids to do the repetitive, boring, sometimes really hard exercises that enable them to express themselves clearly. She even enjoyed parts of her second- and third-shift jobs. It was gratifying to her to know stuff other “ladies” didn’t, like about wall adhesives. The only job my mom flat-out hated was casino card dealing, but sometimes the tips were so spectacular that she skipped through the front door.

When she’d earned enough graduate credits, my mom became a school counselor. The position often put her in the middle of conflicts among teachers, students, parents, occasionally child-welfare services, and, once in a while, even the police. Just a few months into that job, her principal said, “You’d be a really a good administrator.” “Why?” my mom said. “Because you’re not afraid of anything.” Soon enough she was a vice principal in charge of discipline. By the time I started college, my mother was running a high school.

My own career

mom daughters hard workCourtesy Amanda Robb

I’ve been far more fortunate than my mother. I grew up in an era in which American girls were encouraged to have professional dreams—huge ones. While I was in high school, Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be a candidate for Vice President on a major party ticket. These are just a few of the moments that changed women’s history forever.

My mom told me to study whatever I wanted in college, so I majored in political economy. After graduating, I got a job in a U.S. Senator’s Washington, D.C. office. I became his speechwriter. When I fixated on a new professional dream—television soap-opera writer (I know, of all things)—I was married to a healthy man who could support us (and our daughter when she came along) while I took drama-writing classes, interned at network writers’ offices, and wrote about a billion practice scripts.

Despite all my effort and passion, I turned out to be a terrible television soap-opera writer. I failed my trial script tests at three shows and was fired from the two that did hire me. I was crushed and extremely humiliated. But deep down, I knew I’d figure out some other work—not just to do, but to love. It was the gospel on which I’d been raised. I ventured into journalism. It was a steep learning curve. But steadily enough, I became a good reporter. Now journalism is work not only that I feel is important, but also that makes me feel important, too.

Passing it on

mom daughtersCourtesy Amanda Robb

My daughter, now 20, is studying to be an opera singer. She’s already earned her way into the world’s best conservatories and studios. But, as people are strangely fond of telling her, “Ohhh, that’s a really hard career. Almost impossible to make a living. Not many people make it.”

A few months ago, I was with her when a neighbor asked what she was “majoring in.” My daughter answered and got the usual response. She listened politely to the prediction of her failure and financial ruin, then said, “Well, if opera doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else.”

I was so proud of my daughter. Truth told, I was even more proud of myself, her mid-life career-changing mom. I was also on-my-knees grateful to my mother. Because of her example, I’d given my child the gift of believing in herself—and not in a silly motivational cliché way, like, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” What my daughter has is a belief in her own resilience, adaptability, and industry. Even at her tender age, in her artist milieu, and with her frankly very privileged upbringing, she understands that circumstances can change and that dreams can, too.

Mom today

mom daughters workCourtesy Amanda Robb

Today, my mom is back in Reno, where—three months after she retired as a school principal and one month after her second husband died—she achieved her late-in-life professional dream and opened a designer shoe boutique. During the current coronavirus pandemic, she has dutifully closed her shop but, via phone and online ordering, is managing to continue doing business while dutifully social distancing. In between dropping off booties, mules, and stilettos on customers’ porches, she’s volunteering with every civic group that will have her. She’s pushing 80.

“Why doesn’t your mother slow down?” people often ask me.

There are a lot of answers to that question: She doesn’t want to. She’s out of practice. It’d scare her to death. Although I worry about her health and well-being, I know that for her, survival is a very simple formula: Life = work. Work = life. I also know that in painful, scary times when everything feels out of control, that’s a powerful lesson a mom can teach her children. Next, read on for 11 stories of how Take Your Daughter to Work Day has changed lives.

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