Without saying a word, my mother taught me a truth that has set me free.
I was a teenager when my 39-year-old, stay-at-home mom decided to become a nurse. She did not drive, and we lived on a lake in the country about fifteen miles from where her classes would be held. Always resourceful, she convinced her sister, who could drive, to become a nurse too. Thus, my aunt provided Mom’s transportation.
I’m told the sisters were a hit with their class, despite being nearly two decades older than everyone else. I can imagine my mother’s cheery personality adding laughter and enthusiasm to the classroom.
I was in eighth grade, my brother in fourth grade, and my sister in kindergarten when Mom’s nurses training began. It irritated me that she was no longer available 24/7 and that my siblings and I now had more chores around the house. But I also felt proud of her.
She’d be studying when the rest of us went to bed. And she’d rise at 4 a.m. to study, then make our school lunches and prepare our breakfast, before rushing out the door with her books to climb into my aunt’s car. After graduating at the top of her class, mother began working in the premature nursery of Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Women’s Lib and feminism weren’t familiar phrases at the time. And my dad, a hard-working laborer, was not expected to take on housework just because his wife had a job. So, Mom still performed all the traditional homemaking tasks while also working full-time. However, Dad did become her chauffeur to and from the hospital each day. That drive gave them both some much-needed time together.
Unlike TV moms, who often dispensed wisdom to their confused or discouraged children, my mother was way too busy to sit us down for some sage advice. Yet, I learned from her annual springtime ritual the most important lesson ever about work and my relationship to it.
When May arrived each year, she would approach her supervisor at the hospital and ask for a summer leave of absence. “My children are growing up so quickly,” she’d say, “and I want to spend the summer with them while I can.”
Her supervisor would explain that there was no way to grant my mother’s request. A three-month leave was totally out of the question. Within a day or so of being refused, Mom would write and deliver a two-week notice that she was quitting.
When we were finished with school, she was finished with work. She’d once again be our 24/7 mother, and we’d all enjoy summer together, swimming in the lake, visiting friends, and just plain having fun. We’d pick berries and she’d bake pies. We’d help her can tomatoes and peaches and green beans. She’d make strawberry jam.
When Dad got his two-week vacation, we’d all take off for the Smoky Mountains, or Mammoth Cave, or some other wonderful place, camping along the way and making family memories for a lifetime. In the fall, as we kids headed back to school, Mom, refreshed and renewed, would apply for work at the hospital and be immediately hired. She’d be back in the nursery enjoying the work she loved.
This yearly tradition continued throughout my and my siblings’ school years. Why the hospital never granted her request for leave or tried to negotiate a shorter leave of absence, I’ll never know. But as a family, we enjoyed summer vacation together. And I absorbed the truth that my employer does not own me; I’m not a slave to my job. I am free to walk away.
That freedom has served me well, enabling me to comfortably tolerate unpleasant but temporary situations at work, or giving me permission to quit when a job is taking the joy out of life. More than once, when hired for a new job or being promoted to a new position, I have negotiated a two-month rather than two-week yearly vacation.
Mom’s annual ritual taught me that while you can always earn money you can never earn more time, that life’s quality is more valuable than a paycheck, and when it comes to my working life, I’m the one in charge. These truths, taught without speaking a word, have blessed my life with uncommon freedom.