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My Mother's Gift to Me

Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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May 7, 2011

I miss my mom on Mother’s Day. She died a little over two years ago. My mother was a vital force — in her own life and in mine. Among the many things she taught me and the many passions she instilled in me, her views about women’s equality were paramount.

I was born in 1963 to activist, political, progressive parents. When I was 3 months old, my parents took me to the first of many marches on Washington; it was August 28, 1963, the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his, “I Have a Dream”speech.

As a budding feminist and a fervent anti-Vietnam War advocate at age 9, friends asked me: “If you think women should be equal, do you think they should be drafted for the war?” To which I replied, “No. I don’t think ANYONE should be drafted.” That shut them up (and today at the ACLU, we continue to discuss the male-only selective service law).

My mother was a role model for me. When I was born, she had just gotten her master’s degree in psychology and was working on her Ph.D. at New York University, which she received when I was 6 years old. Throughout my childhood, she always had a career and worked full-time.

Her career stood in sharp contrast to most of the moms in Teaneck, N.J., who were home to give lunch to my friends during our lunch break from school or to provide cookies and milk when they returned home after school. I was proud of my mom and liked being different from the other kids. I loved answering the phone when the caller would say, “May I please speak to Dr. Lapidus?” and I would respond, “Which one?” (My father had a Ph.D. in quantum particle physics).

My mother was a proud “women’s libber” — the precursor to today’s feminists. She fought to get credit cards in her own name, not my father’s. She insisted on being treated as an equal in all respects — from the mundane to the profound. Case in point: she often drove when we went on family trips, while my father sat in the passenger seat. She also always pursued her career with as much passion as she put into raising my sister, brother and me. Being a successful professor at Columbia University was as important to her as being the Very Best Mom on Earth.

I learned a lot from my mom. I learned that although it is difficult at times, raising a family and having a meaningful career are compatible. My mom was lucky. As an academic, she had flexibility that many working women didn’t have back then. She was able to bring me with her to the university, along with a babysitter, so the babysitter could play with me while my mother taught a class and then bring me back so she could breastfeed me. I was born in the days before on-site child care centers and before any laws (or many people) mentioned the word “breastfeeding.” My mom was a trailblazer member of Lamaze, and had one of the first natural childbirths in a hospital in the U.S. when she gave birth to my sister in 1959. She breastfed my sister, brother and me long before white middle-class women began routinely breastfeeding.

When I gave birth to my own daughter, Isabel, in 2002 (still having to fight with my Ob/Gyn about my desire to have a natural childbirth), the world had changed —somewhat. Many white, middle class women were trying to balance careers with raising families. Although the ACLU had only recently adopted a formal parental leave policy when Isabel was born, I did have the “luxury” of taking a few months off to care for and bond with my newborn. There was no child care on site at the ACLU, so I went home every day at lunch to breastfeed her. It was tiring and time-consuming to take the subway back and forth during my lunch break every day, but it was the only way I could figure out how to have the career I wanted and be the mom I wanted to be.

Now my daughter is almost 9, and I continue to struggle to balance the heavy demands of my career with the heavy demands of being a mother.

Luckily, the ACLU is a great place to work and provides me with the flexibility I need in order to attend a class trip once in a while, or to take a day off if Isabel gets sick. I know I am lucky. Most working women do not have this flexibility in their jobs. Without paid sick days many women face a stark choice: do I stay home and care for my sick child or do I work so I have money to buy her medicine?

We need to change our policies to be more family-friendly, and to understand that real change will only come when policies are implemented that not only enable mothers to have careers but also enable working fathers to be parents. We need to change our perspective to understand that it is not a “luxury,” but a necessary choice, to stay home with a newborn during those first critical months. We need to understand that parents who work outside of the home must be able to take time away from the office when their children are sick or when they have a meeting with the child’s teacher. We have to change our world view to understand that most people need to work and many people want to become parents. Given that reality, how is society going to make both of these aspects of our lives possible?

Shortly after I was hired as Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project (WRP) 10 years ago, I had the honor of meeting with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the founder of WRP. I asked her what she thought was the most important women’s rights issue facing women today. She said, “Women have made great strides in gaining equality in the workplace. But until men can play an equal role in parenting their children, we won’t be a society that is truly equal.” A decade later, I’m not sure we’ve made much progress.

Let’s all pledge that in the next decade, we will dedicate ourselves to enacting laws and adopting polices that will make it possible for all parents — women and men — to have meaningful careers and be loving parents so we can, as a society, raise the next generation to be more equal. On this Mother’s Day, let’s honor our mothers — and our daughters — by each taking one step toward that goal.

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