My siblings had a different mom. Biologically she was the same, but I’m the last born. The baby. The fifth. By the time I arrived at the party, my mom was taking down the decorations and packing up the china. She’d been through years of babies and housekeeping. It was the late 60s, and even in my tiny northern town, women desired something more than their conventional roles. Equality and independence filled the air.
I dimly recall trailing behind her to bridge clubs, coffee clutches, and her weekly appointment for a wash and set. But more vividly, I remember her surrounded by textbooks on our groovy green couch—her feet up and brow furrowed—while she puzzled over an assignment after returning to college.
Like many from my generation, I witnessed my mom transforming from Laura Petrie to Mary Richards.
Neither Mom was wrong. They were just different channels on the same television.
The early 70s found women entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. Many, my mom included, listened to their own heart’s desires, instead of solely focusing on the family’s wants and needs. My peers and I were the first generation to fully experience this shift.
While older siblings arrived home to a mom’s after-school greeting, we were greeted with kitchen-table notes and directives. Hope your test went well. Pls peel potatoes for dinner. Do homework before TV. Be home about 5.
This was revolutionary stuff.
Thinking back, I can’t fathom the guts my mother conjured to reenter college. She’d just acquired giant bifocals and wasn’t used to them. Focusing required lifting her chin up or down depending on what she needed to see. And for the first time since the fifties, she got a job “outside” the home. Despite the obstacles, she kept at it, just like Mary Richards did on our TV, never losing her smile or her spunk.
And I got a front row seat to it all, from a beaming smile over an A test grade to her joy at spending her first paycheck on “work” clothes, the latter so sharply imprinted, I can describe the outfit and the store where it was purchased. The excitement surrounding her was palpable. Even as a child, I knew something big was going on. And it wasn’t just my mom, but my friend’s moms, too. We drank in our mothers’ evolutions, even if we couldn’t fully grasp what it meant.
But I see it differently. Just like millions of viewers inspired by Mary Tyler Moore’s character transformations, I watched it firsthand, in action. And I wonder if—for my mom, at least—finding herself was more important than finding a career. My mom taught me it’s never too late to take a chance or create something new. Go to school. Follow that dream. Choose a different path in life.
Perhaps she never fully stepped into Mary Richards’ shoes, but my mom aimed there, and many of my friends’ moms arrived there. Those strong women taught us by their actions. And I’m proud to see those lessons alive and well today.