If you are a even a little bit of a foodie, then the name Ruth Reichl will be familiar. Perhaps you subscribe to Gourmet magazine or have read one of Reichl's wonderful memoirs. Not Becoming My Mother is a different kind of book, and it is difficult to review.
In 110 pages Reichl tells us not only the story of her mother but also the story of all women born between 1890 and 1930. Girls being raised under the weight of fairy tales and the lure of Prince Charming could not afford to waste energy on the idea of a life of independence.
Before the war, women who were lucky enough to get a college education were generally not expected to be any different from women who didn't finish high school. You were to marry, support your husband, raise your children, and keep your house clean and neat. Reichl's mother, Mim, who earned her Ph.D. in Paris at the age of 19, was no exception. Her only job was to return home, marry, and have babies. Once Mim gave birth to her first child, a boy, her father wrote: "Now you are a real woman!"
What about women who did not care about doing housework, who were not particularly maternal, or who did not find satisfaction in being a support system for their husband? Mim struggled with this her whole life. What happens to a person who tries to live up to the expectations of society and her parents when those goals are not her own? Mim would have probably made an excellent psychiatrist—she may have not coped very well herself but she knew how to break the cycle. By not pretending to be something she wasn't, she was able to give her daughter the gift of freedom and independence. Reichl grew up knowing that she did not what to become her mother.
As Reichl put it, "Instead of holding herself up as a model to be emulated, she led by negative example, repeating 'I am a failure' over and over, as if it were a mantra. 'I am ridiculous. Don't be like me.' " Only years later did Reichl understand what her mother gave up when she "deliberately sabotaged my respect and emphasized her failings." I can't imagine the frustration that would lead a mother to do this. Mim was strong woman.
Especially striking was Mim's transition after her husband died. After an initial surrender to depression, she finally realized that she was on her own and was able to lead her own life—parentless, husbandless, and childless. She traveled, she took in college students, she cared for her friends, and she did just what she wanted. She blossomed.
Although Reichl is, almost to the day, only 7 years older than I am, it's the difference in our mother's ages that is significant. My mother is 81, but Reichl's mother would have been 101. Our mothers shared some experiences, however: Both grew up in Ohio and both wanted to be a doctor. In the late 1940s, my mother's college adviser talked her out of becoming a psychiatrist. My mother was already married, and my father was in optometric school. The adviser told my mother that her marriage would fall apart if she got her M.D. So my mom majored in child psychology and then taught kindergarten until she had children.
The 20-year age gap gave my mom the advantage over Mim. My mother was able to reinvent herself two times over. First, she organized and ran the library at our temple, all on her own, working every Saturday and Sunday morning for more than 20 years. Although she made only minimum wage and worked only 10 hours a week, that money was hers. She was pretty much the only mother in my 1950s-style neighborhood who didn't have to use her husband's money to buy herself a treat. In her 40s, my mother basically fell into a career as a journalist, becoming one of the first women to have a column on the sports page of our local newspaper. She retired only at the age of 79, a year or so after my dad retired (when he was 80).
Despite the differences in our mothers (and mine is a fabulous cook!), they both taught us the same lessons: the importance of having a meaningful career, that beauty comes from self-awareness and self-assurance, that women do not need a man to be complete (and my mom has had 60+ years of happy marriage), that being resourceful and independent were worthy goals, and that "in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy."
Thank you, Ruth, for sharing Mim's story. I can't wait to share it with my own mother, who is one of my closest friends. And to those of you who are mothers yourselves, happy Mother's Day.
Ruth Reichl has a website.
Be sure to listen to Bethanne's interview with Reichl at The Book Studio.
Published by Penguin (USA), 2009
Challenges: A-Z title, What's in a Name, 999, 100+