Ethics of the Mother

Linda Haase

Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.

Ethics of the Mother


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The group of parents at the next table was abuzz, dissecting the latest scandal involving a professional athlete. One of them shook her head sadly. Really, she asked, who is left for our kids to look up to?

Everyone wondered aloud where all the heroes had gone. 

I have a different question.

How did we get the idea that a hero is someone who does an impressive job catching, hitting or throwing a ball? When did we decide that bravery was defined by how fast a person could run or cycle? Why do we measure courage by how beautifully a person can sing or model a gown? 

When long hours on a practice field or in a practice room yield outstanding results, that's called success, not heroism. The pursuit of excellence does not equal valor. A hero isn't just accomplished; a hero makes personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Whether in fiction or actual history, true heroes do not walk through the flames unscathed. On the contrary, they often lose some of the things - and people - they love the most. From Moses and Moshe Dayan to Nathan Hale and Harriet Tubman, from Raoul Wallenberg and Hannah Senesh to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks - and even from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen - heroes take the hit. 

At times, heroes are even reviled. Two of the greatest leaders in history, President Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill, made bold, brave decisions that were unpopular with a large minority of the population. We remember the enduring importance of what they accomplished, often overlooking what it cost them personally. Lincoln's reward for saving the Union was assassination; Churchill's prize for standing up to Hitler was to be trounced at the polls immediately thereafter.

So, where can we find heroes today? 

Recently, I attended a beautiful college graduation. I will never forget the look on the faces of the couple seated near us, whose daughter was the first in their family to get a degree. That couple had worked for decades to make this opportunity possible for their child. The fatigue was etched on their faces - but that day fatigue was overshadowed by pride.

I looked at the couple, quietly holding hands, and thought: That's what heroes look like.  

We will never learn about them on the news. We will never know what opportunities they gave up - Night school? Nice vacations? More interesting jobs that paid less? - to ensure that their kids had a better life.

Good Samaritans who pull passengers from burning cars make the news. Quiet, everyday heroes like those parents fly under the radar.  There's no adrenaline rush or drama, just the steadfast pulse of people who make regular sacrifices for someone or something they love more than themselves.

The honors student who arises at 4 a.m. to work the morning shift before going to school, helping to support his immigrant family.

The Army wife (or husband) who lives as a single parent for months and months on end while her spouse is deployed. 

The executive heading a company reorganization project who decides her own job should be cut first.

The teacher who dips into his own pocket to buy needy students books and school supplies. 

The mom who ends a rewarding career outside the home to care for a disabled family member.

Where have all the heroes gone? They are everywhere; sitting next to you on the el or standing behind you in line at the grocery store, taking your order at a restaurant or giving orders at a construction site, in the next cubicle or the house next door.

Can you see me?

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Somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, I seem to have grown invisible.

People increasingly bump into me on my commute. Bar hostesses look right past me. I am met with blank stares and silence at a community Oneg Shabbat.

The people who seem unable to see me have one thing in common: they are young.  When they look at me, I just don't seem to register with them. Or perhaps they look away because they don't know what to say to me.

They view me as "other" rather than a person perhaps worth getting to know.

I suspect that when some of my younger acquaintances and colleagues do see me, what they identify is a hetero-normative, cisgender, middle-aged businesswoman in a suit and sensible shoes. Many assume I am corporate, conservative and conventional.

In reality, I am none of those things.

It is disappointing to me that the same people who demand that their differences be acknowledged seem to view acceptance as a one-way street. They (rightly) resent being discounted because of their gender identity or political views, overlooked because of their tattoos or unconventional clothing. They ask not to be disregarded, challenging those of us who are older to see their creativity and brilliance and humanity as well as their youth.

They are right. When I spend time with women and men who are younger, and especially those who are "counter-culture," I learn that many of them are very much worth getting to know.

I discover that the young woman who is a fierce advocate for transgendered individuals happens to be an accomplished opera singer and a ferociously patriotic American. I find that my colleague with spiky hair and a nose ring is utterly passionate about providing health care to the disenfranchised, and happens to be a world-class cook. I realize that my friend's vegan child who identifies an anarchist is a frustrated idealist bursting to make a difference in the world. I understand that my child's friend who has rainbow-colored hair is a brilliant scientist with questions about the universe that could rock it.

My viewpoint expands, and my world right along with it.

I'd like to suggest that some of us who are older also are more complex than we seem. One of my closest friends is a pleasant, suburban Jewish mother of two, who happens to have amassed a world-class collection of antique Japanese kimonos and books. Another is a no-nonsense businesswoman who writes fantasy fiction for young adults in her free time.

I have coworkers who are deadheads, triathletes and marched for Civil Rights in the 1960s; one colleague had a successful career as a singer songwriter. My sister-in-law has studied with Second City. I have helped teach HIV/AIDs prevention and worked for LGBTQ rights since the mid-1980s.

So, here's an invitation to anyone who can look beyond the bifocals: Want to grab a beer?

Career crisis

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I recently lost the best job I ever had.

Not the telecommunications post I held during the whirlwind divestiture of AT&T. Not the job helping to establish the State's watershed AIDS program. Not the rewarding position I held at the American Cancer Society, nor even working for this incredible organization, which has leant meaning to the last 18 years of my career.

My favorite job was being a mom.  And I miss it.

Now my daughter is an adult.  I am still her mother, but not her mommy. It's not the same.

I am not grieving her growing up--that's all good; Jenna is a fabulous woman, great company and a wicked-sharp wit. Instead, I am grieving the loss of a huge and precious part of my own personal identity.

I miss being needed in such a primal way, miss attending softball games and skating practices, miss reading to her at night and planning her birthday parties. I miss the sound of her giggle while she was hiding in the clothes hamper.  I even miss fighting with her about homework.

Are these words of betrayal from a card-carrying feminist?

When I was young, if you had told me that one day I'd attend a school open house and simply write "Jenna's Mom" on my nametag, I would have reeled in horror at the implied subjugation of my own self.

When I graduated from college, I was determined to be a self-actualized woman, to make the most of the opportunities that had been afforded me by my parents and my coming of age at that fortunate point in history. I knew I was being given choices that my parents and grandparents had not had.  I also knew that women who had come before me had struggled and suffered for equal opportunity, and I did not want to take their sacrifices for granted.

By age 28, I had earned two degrees, studied and traveled abroad, worked in three fast-paced jobs, met with governors and senators and members of Congress, chaired my condominium association and served as president of a nonprofit board. I was productive, purposeful and passionate.

If you had told me, then, that someday I would feel just as energized and self-actualized by motherhood, I would have been at best confused. I expect I would have been utterly bewildered to learn that in a few short years, I would be happier being Jenna's mommy than I had ever been in my life.

Being a mother didn't make me enjoy my professional life any less; on the contrary, it inspired me and leant new purpose to my work, gave me a tangible reason to strive for a better world. It also made me a better boss and a more patient and intuitive coach. It was the best of all possible worlds: I loved my job and coworkers, and loved my husband and daughter.  I still do.

But for me, being a working mom was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. I was permanently set on full-throttle. You'd think I would have been tired, but I generally wasn't--or maybe I have just forgotten. I rarely felt like my responsibilities at home collided with those at work. (Insert "props to awesome husband, parents and in-laws" here!) Also, I suspect I knew that soon enough I would miss the days when Jenna burst in needing to talk when I was in the bathtub shaving my legs.

Now, as someone who is used to spending a Sunday baking while writing a fundraising script, it is strangely difficult to switch to doing one activity at a time.  It feels empty. So I write blog posts and think about starting a novel. I learn about social media and try more complicated recipes.

And I dream of having grandchildren.

60 and counting

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As his 50th birthday approached, people constantly asked my husband: "Are you depressed?"

Joel smiled kindly at them and explained that no, he was not. Turning 50 was a privilege his father never had. He felt wistful, but Joel was utterly grateful to celebrate five decades on this planet.

He feels the same way about turning 60, which he did today.

I admire and envy his attitude. He doesn't care if he is going gray; he's thrilled to still have a thick head of hair. He is genuinely delighted, rather than freaked out, when our friends become grandparents. He doesn't care if he's too old to wear a hoodie.

I turned 50 on Yom Kippur, two weeks after our only child left for college. Suffice it to say that I did not take this well. I realized I was old enough to shop at Chico's, and have scowled ever since.  

Conversely, Joel seems to be aging like the best balsamic vinegar, getting sweeter, richer and more complex every year.

The first thing that attracted me to Joel (besides those beautiful brown eyes) was how very kind he is.  When I say kind, I don't mean a pushover, though I know one is often mistaken for the other. I mean that he has a big heart and isn't afraid to use it. He remembers all his friends' and relatives' birthdays. If it's cold or snowy outside, he drives me to the train. If a friend is having a bad day, he bakes him brownies. If our daughter needs more contact lenses, he will federal express them to her the next day. If someone is sick, he will show up at the door with chicken soup. If you need help with a drippy faucet or installing a ceiling fan or a ride from the airport, he'll be there in a heartbeat.

He is not just good to his mother; he is also good to mine.

As a musician, he is a consummate professional. He never, ever just "phones in" a performance-even when he's playing under less-than-optimal circumstances. His personal and artistic integrity would never permit it. He has never given in to cynicism and couldn't be indifferent if he tried.

He cares, and often cares deeply. When he does, he is not afraid to show it.

Joel is never bored or uninterested. He can cheerfully occupy himself with re-finishing a light fixture, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book about most anything. I am amazed by his capacity to learn, and to remember what he has learned. He knows so much about so many subjects that I have almost stopped asking him: "How did you know that?" (Hence his ability to fix a drippy faucet, install a ceiling fan and re-finish a light fixture.) He has a boundless sense of wonder.

Becoming a father seemed to enhance his ability to continually see the world through fresh eyes, and to expand his sense of joy and immediacy. Having lost his own dad halfway through his childhood left a chasm in Joel's heart; when his own child was born, I watched him fill that void with his love for Jenna. I have never seen a father and daughter who are closer.

He may not be rich or famous, but he is Jenna's daddy, and for him, that is enough.

To me, he is everything, and more than enough.

Happy Birthday, Joel.  May you live to be 120.

What’s the secret to a long and happy marriage?

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Julie's mother had cared for her bedridden husband for nearly a year. One day, as Julie* watched her mother suction her father's breathing tube, she had a moment of searing clarity:

Julie wanted a divorce.

After three decades of marriage, Julie and Ben* had fallen into a rhythm of chilly household détente, their routine punctuated by sarcastic asides and unhappy silence. Julie could endure the sad reality of daily life with Ben, but the thought of someday having to provide him with intimate care made her stomach roil.

I was shaken by Julie's announcement, and shared her story with another long-married friend who said, "Oh, yeah; as soon as the kids leave for college, I am so out of here." Her husband was a good father, she said, so she didn't want to separate and deny her children daily contact with their dad, but she'd fallen out of love with him years ago.

Another woman I know said that she couldn't imagine getting a divorce, because that would mean she couldn't afford to keep her house. Yet another felt it would be too complicated to leave her husband after all these years, but otherwise she probably would. A third acquaintance said the only thing that sounded worse than staying married was starting to date again.

And so it goes. Many 40- and 50-something women I know seem at best indifferent, and at worst unhappy, in their marriages.  

What gives? How do people fall out of love?

First, let's acknowledge that the last several years have been especially tough ones. The economic downturn, coupled with the rising cost of living, has put extra stress on many marriages. Workplace "right-sizing" and the never-ending demands of technology have left many of us emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention the end of the week. Plus, new family responsibilities have overwhelmed an aging population that is quickly becoming the club sandwich generation: I know more than one working mom who helps care for one or more parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, bills and bedpans are hardly the stuff romance is made of-but sometimes they are the very things relationships are built upon. The challenge lies in how we handle these unending, and sometimes very unglamorous, demands on our emotional and physical resources.

I suspect that some people cope by turning to their spouses, while others of us have the tendency to turn on them. It is so easy to focus on what's wrong with our lives instead of what's right. The trick is figuring out how to improve the former without screwing up the latter.

And do you know why that's so hard? Because for most people, our weaknesses are the flip sides of our strengths. There is a point at which the spouse whose assertiveness you admire becomes combative and the one with the giving nature you adore acts like a doormat; the hyper-organized partner might over-plan a vacation and the laid-back one might be over-drawn at the bank. Perhaps the key to marital happiness and longevity is to try to remember that the trait you hate (in yourself and/or your beloved) is just the flip side to the trait you love. 

Every summer, my dad took his kids and grandkids to Cubs games. On the way out of the ballpark, without fail, he would purchase a bag of neon-colored cotton candy to bring home to my mom, who loves the stuff. It always made me smile to see that Dad was as intent on expressing his love as he was on expressing his opinion.   My mom saw that, too.

I suspect it's why they were married for nearly 54 years.

*Names have been changed

Drawing the line

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When I was in my 30s, my best friend volunteered with the American Cancer Society, where I worked. Having lost her mother to cancer, Gail had skin in the game.

Then she met Tom. He was smart, gregarious and generous; he made her happy. He also made his living promoting cigarettes. 

Gail married Tom, and eventually left behind her volunteer work and her friends. None of us had objected to him-he really did seem to make her happy-but surely there was some dissonance between her new role as this advertising executive's wife and most everything else in her life.

Did Gail choose happiness over principle? Would she have been an idiot not to? Was she truly happy with a partner who didn't share her values? I don't know. But I have thought about this recently, as the movement for consumers to vote with our pocketbooks gains steam on social media. It seems that every decision or purchase we make, no matter how small, can be a political statement.

A friend of mine recently chided me for using a specific brand of napkins, which are manufactured by a company whose owners donate to political causes I find offensive. I told her it was a free country, that people were allowed to support the candidates of their choice, and that I was not ready to base every single purchase I make on whether I shared the manufacturer's political views. She was horrified.

Wait a minute, I said. You eat "Brand X" ice cream. That company is also owned by someone who not only funds causes you don't like, but has run for office himself on a platform that is contrary to everything you believe in.

Well, she explained, that was only because it was the last local place you could get a decent milk shake.

So how much are we willing to sacrifice to live our values through everything we eat, wear, buy or do?

When Joel and I were considering honeymoon destinations in 1990, we regretfully ruled out beautiful Charleston, South Carolina.  I didn't want to spend money in a place that flew the Confederate flag. But it was hardly a sacrifice to "settle" for Napa Valley. 

Yeah, I am willing to spend more to support smaller, local businesses. And yeah, there are some places I won't shop. But it's easy enough for me to skip one megastore because I don't like the way the company treats its workers; what if it were the only megastore in town? How adamant would I be then?

I don't eat fois gras. I love it, but I don't eat it, because I believe that if the laws of Kashrut were handed down today, fois gras would be traif. But as the delicacy pops up on more and more menus, how long will I maintain my resolve?

A number of years ago, when Joel and I bought our current car, we first looked at a hybrid. At the time, we decided that the most environmentally responsible decision was too expensive. Were we being selfish or sensible?  Perhaps both.

Like so much in life, I suppose this is a balancing act, weighing costs and benefits, responsibility to community vs. self, and deciding at what point you can still look in the mirror.

I'm not sure where the line in the sand is for me. I guess it lies somewhere between buying napkins and selling cigarettes.

Little life lessons

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Nowadays I am continually amazed by how much I still have to learn. So today, as a reminder to myself that I have absorbed a few life lessons along the way, I offer some informal rules to live by.

Life is short. Use the good china.

If the shoe fits, buy it in every color.

Nothing tastes better than a peach from the farmers' market.

It's essential to have at least one guilty-pleasure TV show. If you are in sales or marketing, you get to call this market research.

The only way to keep your weight under control is to exercise.  A lot.

No matter how old you are, in 10 years you'll wish you looked as good as you do now.

The best way to heal your inner child is to be the parent you wish you'd had.

Life is too short for bad beer.

It expands your humanity to know another language. (This has not been enough to impel me to actually learn another language, but I know that I should.)

Ditto for playing an instrument.

Put something in your 401 (k) or 403 (b) account every week, no matter how little money you have, even if it just $5. Trust me.

When in doubt, do the kind thing,

Share a milkshake or malt with your child.

If you succeed half the time you try something important, remember: Batting 500 is great. Even Ty Cobb, who holds the record for MLB lifetime batting average, hit just 366.

A house is not a home without books and music.

It is okay to make a pie crust in the food processor. (Pulse 1¼ c. flour with a generous pinch of salt and a palm full of sugar.  Gradually add one cubed stick of cold butter, followed by ¼ c ice water. You're welcome.)

Invest in a snow-blower.

Go to your reunion. You will either rekindle old friendships or feel relieved to have dodged a bullet.

Buy locally.  Support family-owned businesses in your community.

Write a letter to your parents telling them how great they are for Mother/Fathers Day. It's all they want.

On your deathbed, you are unlikely to most regret that you got a B+ instead of an A- in that class. Let it go.

Someday, you won't be able to recall the details of the crisis that's causing you anguish today. Let that go, too.


The most important decision you'll ever make is who you choose to spend your life with.  Choose someone who will be a haven instead of part of the storm.

Sometimes life is like jumping off the high dive: You just have to do what's next before you think about it too much and psych yourself out.

You need at least one old, close friend who can help you retrieve the breadcrumbs of your life's journey. Cherish her.

*Note: This column is modeled after a popular column by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Schmich ("Wear sunscreen"), which offered tidbits of common sense wisdom.