My stay-at-home mom taught me everything I needed to know about succeeding at work

My mom visiting her birthplace and child, April 2016.

In 1982, my mom had an interview with a top advertising agency in New York. She had been working in the industry for nearly a decade and had been contacted by a headhunter about joining a rival agency.

"Do you smoke?" the male executive interviewing her asked. She didn't.

As a non-smoker, she wasn't right for this job, he told her. A cigarette maker was one of the agency's top clients, and you can't sell a product you don't believe in enough to use.

She sensed the interview had gone south, and, in today's parlance, she leaned in.

"I noticed," she said, "that you have a brand of sanitary products in your portfolio. Do you feel confident advertising for them?" He did.

"Well," she told him, "I'd like to point out that there is always the chance I could become a smoker, but it seems highly unlikely you're ever going to use a tampon."

My mom, center, office of McCann Erickson, Frankfurt, Germany, September 1976

Stories of my mom's adventures in the workplaces of the 1970s and 80s punctuated my childhood. She worked until I was born — in fact, she attributes my near-total recall for commercials to all the pitch meetings we attended "together" — but throughout my childhood she was a stay-at-home mom.

Her take on most group situations — third grade, lunch tables, dance class — was organizational and corporate. Like sometimes you have to keep quiet, even if you're seething. And other situations require that you speak up, even if you know you won't win.

There is a mountain — or perhaps a minefield — of research on the effects of a woman's career on her progeny. By the end of 2016, 42 percent of mothers in the U.S. were the sole or majority financial providers for their families, and another 22.4 percent provided at least a quarter of the household income. Still, inadequate leave policies and the high cost of childcare often force women with young children to drop out of the workforce, which in turn perpetuates the gender pay gap.

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To this day, the guilt of the working mother is espoused by the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Indra Nooyi, but a 2015 Harvard Business School study found that the daughters of working mothers went on to earn higher wages and experience greater professional success than those of stay-at-home moms. Some say the best case scenario is for mothers to simply have the choice of whether to work or stay home, but as Jill Filipovic pointed out recently, that assumes that these choices are inherently equal and without cultural weight.

Here is what's clear to me: It was my dad's career as a tax accountant that supported my family, financed my education and enabled my early career as a reporter. And maybe it's because we share a gender, or because advertising and journalism are more similar than either is to corporate tax policy, but it was my mom's career, which took place before I was born, that still informs how I see the workplace.

Her stories made working seem like an adventure that could take you unusual places and introduce you to fascinating people. Her advice, though tested at work, had broad applications:

  • Know when it's time to leave a job.
  • A good haircut is your friend in uncertain times.
  • If your boss' boss' boss is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and he's giving a holiday party and you have the flu, crawl out of your coffin, put on some extra makeup and go — he might one day become President of the United States.
  • That's right: Always go to the party.
My mom and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations George H.W. Bush, December 1972

Even when I was a child, I recognized that her stories hinted that the world is not particularly fair to working women. It will continually present you with unwinnable situations with which other women can commiserate but which no one can tell you how to navigate.

In the mid-1970s, my mom was working at the Frankfurt, Germany office of the ad agency McCann Erickson, on the account for a German car maker owned by General Motors. She was the only female executive, and was deemed a prude for suggesting that using semi-nude models dressed as angels to sell cars during the holidays might alienate customers looking to purchase a family vehicle.

After a staff meeting, she was called to the managing director's office and admonished for not helping his secretary clear away coffee cups after the meeting. As the only female account manager, it was expected that she'd both participate in the meeting and clean up after it.

Actually, he told her, she shouldn't have been assigned to a car account in the first place — a woman's only role in the auto industry should be choose the paint color after her husband selected the vehicle.

I'M HERE NOW. December 1985

That man was the first person I thought of when I stood in a newsroom 40 years later and heard Mary Barra announced as the next CEO of General Motors. I hope he was alive to see Barra become the first woman at the helm of a U.S. automaker. I want him to have seen her use the skills she brought from working in human resources, so often dismissed as a professional "girl ghetto," to steer the company through a crisis created by internal communication so poor that it cost customers their lives.

The workplaces in which I've come of age professionally look different than the ones my mom knew. Nobody smokes in the office, and though it's remained dishearteningly common, sexual harassment is an offense that can get you fired. When my mom applied for jobs after college she was still required to take a typing test, something a man with the equivalent education was not subjected to. Now everyone is expected to have honed that skill.

And beyond our environs we, too, are different. My mom impressed upon me that bad language is more effective when you use it only sparingly — but working for magazine editors eroded my resolve. I know it's difficult for my mom to fathom that I wear black jeans to work essentially every day, sometimes even accompanied by sneakers. We both tend to remember occasions by what we wore; her memories include more sartorial achievements.

Newly-minted suburbanites, 1988.

But when I defuse a stressful situation in the office with a joke, when I prep for a meeting and then review my notes and ask "How could this be better?," when I am faced with a challenging superior or an impossible situation and recall that while it's essential to be polite, "Jesus never said you had to be a doormat," I know that it's my mom's career that positioned me to be the person I've become in mine.

When I sent her a draft of this article to nail down some facts she groaned. "It's like opening your history textbook and flipping to a chapter titled 'Women Get The Vote' or 'Between the Wars,'" she said. I agreed that some of the situations she described are tough for me to imagine.

Tough — but not impossible. In the depths of the financial crisis, when I was a recent college graduate who had been unemployed upwards of six months, I was interviewing for a job I didn't want but definitely needed when the hiring manager asked what perfume I was wearing. I was 23, I was already nervous and it threw me off my game. When the interview ended, I went home and calmed down. And then, I reported his behavior to his boss.

I have no delusions that I'll be considered for the Workplace Feminist Hall of Fame. In fact, that office wasn't even offering me the job. But maybe I spared some later candidate the experience of dressing up in her interview suit and rehearsing in front of the mirror only to be reduced, in the moment, to a bottled odor.

I'm glad my parents had the financial security to make the decisions they wanted for our family, but I'm particularly grateful my stay-at-home mom made the joys and realities of pursuing a career part of my life from the very start.

And, like my mom told me, I always go to the party.

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