Identifying what might be the most valuable gift given to me by my mother among many during my 34 years in this world is no small task. But if pressed, I’d have to go with the following: Choice.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pinpoint what it is that has led me into a love affair with animals, and more recently humane education. Why I walked away from a PhD program to spend time with rescue dogs, leaving a dissertation unwritten and a personal goal unfulfilled. My current hypothesis: I choose not to perpetuate the status quo, which is fundamentally what humane education is all about, and a choice made possible by my mother.
Our mothers are the nexus in our circle of life. Whether they have been there by our side since the day we were born, or have left a profound void in our lives because of their absence, they have and will continue to shape who we are forever.
Sadly, this essential state of maternal being often relegates women to a presupposed role in this world: that of mother, or that of the woman who is not a “mother”. Betty’s mystique may not look exactly the same today as it did in 1963, or even 1974, but it is certainly alive and well, living comfortably alongside public identification of woman as mother and/or wife, or her failure to be one. Woman as writer, artist, mathematician, Secretary of State, professional hockey player, educator, molecular biologist, welder, butcher, and geek are all mantles fully embraced, at least arguably, by the 21st century. However, what might a woman be in the absence of such labels? Typically, it is “a mom”, or at least preparing to be one. Ironically, social acceptance of the presence of the former labels are not nearly as hard-earned as the absence of the latter.
Most of us still live in little boxes on a hillside, as well as little boxes in our minds. It’s why we panic over those who are different from ourselves using what we believe to be our words: marriage, commitment, choice, motherhood, sex, morality, ethics, values. It’s why sleeping at night and getting through the day are made possible for us by our labels: wife, husband, partner, parent, doctor, lawyer, teacher, PhD, MBA, MD, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, married, single, divorced, gay, straight, pit bull, golden retriever. We humans can’t stand it when things are messy, when boundaries blur and black-and-white turns to gray. So we sort, categorize, catalog and label until our little hearts are content.
Thanks to my mother, I continually strive to step outside the box. Not to break any records, to shatter any ceilings or to blaze any newsworthy trails. (I’m not really the type to shave my head, go on a hunger strike–I’d certainly never give up wine, or backpack through the Himalayas for five months.) But instead to approach each phase of my life as a choice, thoughtfully, rather than blindly trudging down the path that was set for me.
It’s why I’ve never felt compelled to get legally married, have a wedding, change my name, have kids of my own, or watch Gilmore Girls just because it seemed to be what everyone else my age and my gender was doing. It’s why I believe that I’m doing more by volunteering to coach and mentor 50 girls after school every week than I would be by staying home to look after my own. It’s why I’ve chosen to spend less time on my hair and my clothes and more time walking my dogs and taking art classes. It’s why I spend more time outdoors than I do in front of the camera or a mirror. And most importantly, it’s why I’ve been able to make such decisions free of judgment or fear of letting a parent down.
It’s also why I believe that most thoughtful women know that their own gender rights and those of others currently struggling for the right to not only marry a same-sex partner, but to have that relationship respected and acknowledged, are inextricably linked. It’s why I agree with the philosophy that you cannot address human rights without simultaneously addressing animal welfare and environmental protection. That showing more compassion for the dirt you live on, the creatures who share it, and your neighbor next door–regardless of their personal choices–will do considerably more for your children, and the rest of the world, than will paying for a private school tuition and sending your teenager to Greece for the summer.
I believe that I got very lucky with the parental hand I was dealt in this world. It’s why I believe I know more about motherhood and fatherhood than many who have their own kids. And perhaps why I lack the desire to have the same? I grew up looking into the eyes of parents who helped define the very word. I thank my mother for the opportunity to think, and to be different. Not in profound or radical ways, the likes of which inspire becoming President or making a mohawk a long-term choice. But in the subtle ways that matter as we move through each day. I thank my mother for seeing the “me” as wife, mother, physicist, nomad, dog lover, potato farmer, etc. as a choice of mine, and for seeing the “me” as thoughtful, compassionate person as a responsibility of hers. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.