I couldn’t talk about my career as a journalist and writer without telling you about my mother. She has inspired me, quietly but powerfully, for more than forty years.
And the way she inspires me has had far more to do with who she is as a person than it does with her résumé.
Had she been born at another time and into different economic means, my mother might have become a Wall Street executive, or, maybe, a professor. The third of nine children raised in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, she spent a lot of her youth pushing baby carriages.
She didn’t go to college until she was able to put herself through at night, while working full-time, when my brother and I were old enough to heat the dinner she’d left for us ourselves.
Most of what my mother taught me was by example. I noticed the way women she knew from the neighborhood and women from her large Irish-Catholic family consulted with her. They trusted her guidance and wisdom, asked for help when doing their taxes and making important decisions.
Whether it was on the PTA or just at one of the many parties my parents threw, she commanded authority, all five foot one of her.
There was never any doubt that my mother expected me to make a living—that I wasn’t going to depend on someone else (i.e., a man) to make my way in the world. Though she came from a different era, she hadn’t depended on anyone else either. She always valued the power of money she earned herself, even in an age in which women were supposed to have a husband do that for them.
When I had my first summer job, she taught me the importance of saving a portion of my wages. She explained compound interest, how the stock market ticked, and the importance of building credit (without getting buried in borrowing). It was only later that I learned many of my female friends hadn’t been given those lessons.
When I landed my first job, at CNN in Atlanta, making $11,000 a year, she counseled: “Be sure to treat yourself to flowers from the farmers’ market every couple of weeks. And take yourself out to a simple meal from time to time.”
Probably the smartest thing my mother taught me was to embrace new challenges rather than to fear them: “Never tell anyone you can’t do something. Say yes to the assignment, and then figure out how to make it work.”
At fifty-seven, she got the opportunity of her lifetime. She was working in a bank, and the higher-ups recognized that customers trusted her with their questions over her younger colleagues who might have better job titles. They offered her the chance to become an investment adviser and stockbroker, and sent her for training. It was the kind of work she would have loved to have been doing all along.
Finally, my mother had a credential she’d unwittingly been prepping for for years. There was no fanfare or laments over lost time, she just dove in and got to work helping her clients: elderly people whose kids only got in touch when they needed money; poor people at a church who’d combined their money to start an investment club; small business owners; school teachers. She loved counseling them all. Her problem was that she didn’t care about selling stuff for the bank or making herself money as much as she cared about putting her clients on the right course.
My mother never got rich, and she wasn’t famous. Neither of those things was her goal—but everyone in her life respected and trusted her.
What better career goal is there than that?