“…you may be doing it the rest of your life.” This was the advice my mother gave me when I graduated from college. Understand that this was in the mid-seventies when people still entertained the idea that they might work for the same company working in nominally the same function for most of their lives. Over the last 40 years we’ve seen how much the idea of a “career” has changed. Millennials enter the workforce expecting to have anywhere from five to seven careers. Not jobs, but careers. Often they overlap. But 1976 was a simpler time. “Choose your career carefully,” she said. What I realized later was she really meant, “Choose your career carefully, I’m going to have to watch you doing it the rest of my life.” My mom thought a lot about the value and the practice of work.
About ten years earlier, in 1964, my mom “went back to work.” In the sixties that meant getting a job outside the home. Her choices were limited. Women professionals then could pretty much be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Mom only had a high school diploma and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so she learned to be a secretary. She worked for almost 30 years in a New York City public school and became one of the pillars on which that elementary school rested. She didn’t have much of a choice in what she could do, but she did her job the absolute best that she could. She wanted me to be a teacher because “you get the summers off.” But she didn’t take the summers off, she got temp jobs working as a secretary in local offices. She loved seeing how corporate offices functioned, and being the temp, she didn’t shoulder the kind of responsibility she had the rest of the year. She loved being a secretary.
My mom was one of my role models when it came to work. She was dedicated. If she called in sick it meant she was in the hospital. She put off an elective procedure until summer so as not to affect her job. Following in her footsteps, I once went five years without calling in sick, and then only when I needed surgery.
I’m on my fourth career right now, having traveled a winding path to get where I am. But I always remember my mother’s advice to choose carefully. Her voice was silenced earlier this month, but her words, and her legacy remain.