Throughout our 1980s childhood, well before we ever heard about the tech world’s diversity problem, we and our older brother had a mom who defied the odds. Our mother, a self-taught engineering project manager, rose through the ranks at companies like HP, Nike and Microsoft, and still is consistently sought after by Fortune 500 companies for her program and project management expertise.
Mom’s career in tech would be remarkable now, but it was unheard of back then. Still, we were oblivious to our mother’s unicorn status. It was revealed to us in a series of experiences in the same way we imagine celebrity children learn the extent of their parents’ notoriety. When we relay a childhood memory of Mom to our spouses or friends, their reactions reveal just how uncommon she was.
Mom was and is no celebrity, but her approach to the life of working mother makes her a superstar in our eyes. It’s heavily influenced the professionals and parents we’ve become.
Here are a few of the lessons she taught us by example:
1. “You only have one mother, and that’s me.”
This was one of her mantras, and we didn’t always receive it well. Sometimes it came down like a gavel in response to our grumbling over something we couldn’t do or get – but most often, we heard, “I can’t be everything you want at all times. This is who I am. Accept it.” As mothers today, those words feel to us like a safe travel pass to an authentic life. We can’t be everything, but what we are is enough – in the office and at home.
2. It’s okay to be hungry and excited about work.
It was always evident that Mom’s desire to work went beyond survival, although having overcome an impoverished and unsettling childhood, and later as a single mom, the need to earn was never lost on her. (Our parents divorced when we were 15 and 11. Our dad is also great. Hi, Dad!) Mom took pride in promotions. She would come home from performance reviews beaming, with high fives and celebratory dinners all around. She spent late nights pouring over piles of data in spreadsheets and coil-bound reports. (Remember, this was the ’80s and ’90s, and it was all about the paper, people.)
Stress was part of the equation, but we knew she enjoyed slaying the dragons along the way, and her hunger was infectious. Being a mom was a huge part of her identity, but being a professional was, too.
3. Be tough.
Next to “I love you,” “be tough” was our mom’s most commonly used phrase – the remedy to all forms of pain life has thrown at us. She said it when Tia tore her ACL in high school. She said it when we struggled with piano lessons. She told us over the phone when we were homesick in college on our study abroad semesters. She’s said it when we’ve relayed the stress of career development and wonder if we’re failing our families in the process. She said it through tears when Shannon’s son was born with a severe and rare condition called Brittle Bone Disease.
It has simply been a guiding light for survival and a reminder that we can do anything. Nothing has served us better than to know she had built us to be tough, that we are tough, and that we have what it takes to overcome what may come.
4. Your most important job is being a mom.
By now, you probably think our mom is a pit bull. Sometimes, she is. And yet her trademark resiliency and tenacity don’t tell the complete story. When it’s all said and done, we know that she considers her biggest accomplishment and her greatest joy to be that she is a mom – our mom – and that we are her children. During the brief time she stayed home from work when we were each quite young, she used to tell people: “My job is raising homo sapiens.” She was proud of that job, just as she’s proud to be not only a working mom, but now a working Nana to seven amazing grandchildren.
Today, as working mothers, we also share our excitement about work achievements with our kids and spouses. Our families are proud of us like we are proud of them. For us, that’s been a huge part of our happiness as women.
We’re blessed to be moms to four wonderful kids, including two incredible daughters. Years from now, we hope and pray that Emerson and Lily will approach Mother’s Day weekend with the same thought that made us want to write this essay: our working mother made us want to be one, and her tenacity, fearlessness and resilience – and some of her unicorn magic – have made us who we are today. Thank you, Mom.