The XX Factor

When Did You Realize Your Mom Was More Than Just “Mom”?

In honor of Mother’s Day, XX Factor contributors discuss the moment they first realized that their moms had an identity in the world outside their place in the family. We invite you to join in the discussion and share your story below.

June Thomas : My mom left school at 15. This was typical in our town, but she had been expected to pass her 11-plus, the exam that, back then, decided if kids went on to an academic or a practical secondary education, so there was always an air of thwarted ambition about her. When I was growing up, she was a dinner lady at the school at the end of our street, and when I enrolled, I saw her rule the dining hall and playground with a will of iron. Some of her rules were random-kids could be sent to the corner for stirring jam into their rice pudding rather than taking dainty bites of each, as she insisted-but every dictator knows that instilling fear is far more important than being consistent.

Cecile Dehesdin : As a little girl, I was reminded every day of the week that my mom had this other life outside of being a mother to me and my brother when she would get dressed for work. We spent a lot of time together on weekends where she was always-and still is-dressed very casually and wearing no makeup whatsoever. But Monday to Friday, as I was getting ready for school, she would don a skirt suit, sheer tights, and heels, and I still remember watching her put on blusher and mascara, marveling at the transformation of my mom into this businesswoman whose exact job description I had a hard time grasping until I was in my teen years.

Jessica Grose : I realized my mom was more than just “my mom” in the world when I was 13 and saw her standing up in front of a town-planning committee fighting to keep her home office. My village’s old guard was trying to outlaw home offices-the blue hairs said they brought too much traffic into residential neighborhoods. Watching her appear so poised in front of a crowd was thrilling. It was also the first time I remember feeling proud of her.

Amanda Marcotte : When my parents divorced when I was 9, it was a crash course in realizing my mom had a life outside of being our mom. It wasn’t just that we had more exposure to her work life and finances. It was also the realization that my parents had adult romantic lives, needs, and desires that had nothing to do with us. It made it the transition to being her adult child much easier for both of us.

Emily Bazelon : When I was 10 or so, I went to my mom’s office-a rare event-and saw a dollhouse that had belonged to my sisters and me. She’s a child psychiatrist and she’d brought it over for her patients. We were done playing with it. But I realized: She thinks about other kids! I was sort of proud and sort of nonplused.

Amanda Fortini: I realized my mom was more than just a mom when I won a college scholarship from her company (nepotism? maybe…) and, one school-day afternoon, accompanied her to her office to receive the little award certificate that had been prepared for me. There, I met several men who reported to her and were obviously in awe of her, even a little scared of her. I was 17 years old, and though I’d known for years that went to an office everyday-in the evenings, she’d lounge on the couch in her suit and pantyhose, which was all the evidence I needed-I’d never seen her businesswoman-boss self in action. It made me proud, to see my mother like that. I didn’t know any other mothers who were also business executives, and I felt our family, which consisted of my mother, my two sisters, and me, was unique. In a larger sense, though I didn’t realize it at the time, and she would never have explicitly said this, seeing my mother at work showed me that the gender roles and hierarchies I saw out in the world could be overturned, reversed, tossed aside: that a woman could be the boss, too.

Ellen Tarlin : When I was younger, realizing my mom was more than just a mom came with resentment. She was a Boston schoolteacher and was very active in the teachers’ union, which meant she was out at meetings a few nights a week, which I hated, but I do remember stuffing envelopes with flyers that bore her face when she was running to be an officer in the union. I suppose I finally realized she had an emotional life that had nothing to do with motherhood one day when we were talking about a couple that had broken up because of infidelity, and I said something to the effect that she and my dad never had a hard time being faithful to each other and she said, “Don’t be so sure.” Wow. (My parents have been married for 47 years.)

Ann Hulbert : I’ll date myself here when I say my mother, like so many women starting families in the 1950s, quit her teaching job to be home with us kids. So there was no office where I could watch her in non-mom mode. It was in bringing my friends home and hearing them talk with her, and then about her, that I realized how much she transcended the usual role: Their mothers were, by comparison, just mothers-who showed little of her unself-conscious, direct interest in people younger than she was. This dawned on me, I would say, in early teenage-hood, and I remember it as a very useful jolt.

KJ Dell’Antonia : Maybe because I was an only child, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that my mom was “just my mom.” She went back to college when I was small, and then to work as a teacher. I loved going with her over the summer to watch her arrange her classroom and be the only kid in a strange school. We’d see her students at the store, and they’d wave, kind of timidly, and I would feel so proud that a teacher (I loved my teachers) was also my mom . It was such a big part of her life, and, by extension, of mine that I can’t remember ever feeling like she wasn’t bigger than just the person she was at home.

Jenny Rogers : When I was in the 4 th grade, the principal came to talk to our class about how we all have to work to make the school better. She pointed to me and said, “This school couldn’t run without Jenny Rogers’ mom.” I was blown away. I knew my mom was always going to PTA functions, but I hadn’t realized her work was so meaningful.

Hanna Rosin : I still don’t think I fully realize that my mom is something other than my mom. How else to explain my sulky explosive preteen behavior whenever she comes over? My endless stream of contradictory, unreasonable demands and objections? (Yes, that shirt you bought me is too big! No, I’m not in a bad mood.) Did I mention that I just turned 40?