This Gimbling in the Wabe was first published for Mother’s Day 2014.
I was watching television the other day when an ad came on informing me that for this Mother’s Day, “smart phones trump flowers”, suggesting that in order to show your mother how much you appreciate her, you need to give her not flowers, but a smart phone. Another ad on another day shows women being presented a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day, their mouths open in what at first seems to be a display of joyous surprise but slowly morphs into a yawn, suggesting that truly loving families wouldn’t bore their moms with the same old dull gesture, but instead, should treat her with an edible bouquet of specially cut fruit on sticks.
I’ll tell you what I would like for Mother’s Day. It’s not a smart phone or an edible bouquet, not designer perfume or a Pandora bracelet bauble. Not even flowers.
But first – a true story.
It was the early 1990s and I worked in the Minneapolis office of a multi-national accounting firm, supervising a department that handled mail services, the file room, supply procurement, shipping and receiving. At that time there were four others in the department, or had been before one left and we had to find a replacement. This was before HR worked with support services; their focus was solely on “professionals”. We were left to our own devices. Usually our ranks were filled by referrals, positions shared by word of mouth – someone’s cousin or friend, often some acquaintance from other companies. I had procured workers before from delivery drivers we had gotten to know, former summer interns, college buddies. I don’t remember there ever being job postings in newspapers or resumes arriving in the mail, and this was before the advent of internet job boards. Unemployment was low, no one was really scrounging for work.
I remember that there were two people on the housekeeping staff that we saw regularly; good people, reliable, hard working, cheerful. I asked them if they were interested in working for us. Indeed, they were: it would be a step up, better pay, more reliable hours, benefits. We had to talk quietly, though; if their bosses got word that they were thinking of jumping ship, things could go poorly for them. I slipped them applications; we’d be doing interviews shortly and hiring within a few weeks.
But they both disappeared. Their applications never arrived. I asked around; one of them had been transferred to another building where he had been given more responsibility, the other one, a woman, had simply disappeared. I put out word that we needed to hear from them quickly, but never did. We ended up hiring someone else, a referral, out of the two other applications we did receive. He was a good worker, ended up staying with us for over 20 years.
Fast forward a few years; five, I think, maybe a few more. One of our offices in on the East Coast had been sued in a job discrimination suit, an accountant had maintained that she had not been hired because she was black. Because of the suit, the Department of Labor cast out a net to scrutinize hiring practices in other offices, and due to a low percentage of minorities in our office, we drew their attention.
For some reason I still don’t fully understand, the DOL did not concentrate on the lack of minorities in the auditor, tax accountant or management consultant ranks, instead deciding to investigate the lack of diversity in the mail room – something that seemed somewhat discriminatory in and of itself. And, even though I had no hiring or firing authority, I was the one who was questioned due to the one fellow that had been hired years ago in my department. The man we hired was white, the two people I had invited to apply but never interviewed were black.
For two days, six hours a day, I was taken to a small conference room and interrogated by a smug DOL agent as to why I hadn’t tried harder to find the two black potential candidates. Without any support from my office manager (who was in charge of hiring and firing, but never interviewed) or the controller (who was interviewed for one hour) or from anyone in HR (who I never heard from throughout the entire ordeal) I had to undergo a series of questions that I answered honestly, but under a cloud of confusion. Told to bring my personnel records with me, they were promptly confiscated although they contained nothing about the people who were part of the investigation. I never got them back. (When I protested, I was told that they were the property of the DOL even if they were not relevant to the investigation; my boss informed me after the fact that I had erred in bringing them into the conference room in the first place.) I was drilled about hiring practices, and had to repeat over and over that I had no authority to hire anyone, and that I had been not been given any training on hiring practices.
The questions got increasingly more personal. My moral integrity was called into question, and I was told to my face that I was a bigot. The implication was that I had sabotaged the black applicants by not making enough of an effort to find them (despite trying to recruit them in the first place). At the end of the day, I would burst into tears when picking up my kids at daycare, wondering if I really was as terrible a person as the DOL agent was implying that I was. Through this entire ordeal, I was never counseled, consoled, or even approached by my boss or anyone else in the firm. I felt totally isolated, utterly alone.
Why do I bring this up when I’m supposed to be writing about Mother’s Day?
Here’s why. The judgment of the DOL investigation took years to be handed down. In that time, my national firm had proactively responded to the charge of impropriety by putting in place much stronger protocols for hiring, and a much clearer line of responsibility for documentation and retention of documentation. The HR department took over all aspects of the hiring process, from posting job openings to vetting candidates to interviewing, as well as all decision-making with an eye towards ensuring parity and balance, not just in support services but across all disciplines. I still was involved in the interview process, but truly could only recommend candidates. As more regulations were introduced into the marketplace, the firm embraced the additional processes, and supervisors and managers alike were trained in a myriad of ethical procedures meant to protect and promote workers.
One day our new HR director called me into his office to let me know that the investigation from so many years ago had been concluded and the ruling was that no wrong-doing had taken place, even though there were recommendations to be put into practice regarding recruitment and hiring, many of which had already been implemented. By this time, I thought I had put it all behind me. But as I was getting ready to leave his office, the HR director stood and looked me right in the eye, and said, “I just want you to know, none of this was your fault. You did nothing wrong.” And he meant it. Suddenly, even after so many years, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even know I was still carrying. As my eyes filled with tears, I realized just how badly I had needed to hear those words. Not for vindication. Not for a sense of justice being done. Just for it to be acknowledged that I had done nothing wrong.
That still remains one of the most powerful personal moments of my life.
So here’s how my story ties in to Mother’s Day. On Sunday, I don’t want gifts, large or small. I don’t want flowers. I don’t want anything that comes from a sense of obligation, from a rote “today is the day we make the effort” sort of thing. That’s not for me. If that sort of ritual benefits anyone, it benefits my family, lets them off the hook, gives them the sense that they have gone through the right motions to fulfill their obligation to convention. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate whatever effort they want to make, but it’s not what I want.
What I really want for Mother’s Day is for someone to look me in the eye and say, “Mom, you done good.” I want to know that even though I’m not a very good cook and am a terrible housekeeper, that even though sometimes I’m incredibly clueless or obtuse or simply insensitive, that even though I sometimes lose my temper when I shouldn’t, or raise my voice when I shouldn’t, even though I snore (supposedly) and too often forget things I should have remembered, even though I fall short in ways both big and small, that in my kids’ eyes, that in my husband’s eyes, I’ve done good. That they are glad I’m their mother. Not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a genuine appreciation for who I am and what I have done, what I have tried to do, in my role as mom.
I want acknowledgement.
Oh, and having someone else make dinner, that would be nice, too.
So if your mother is anything like me, forego the flowers. Heck, don’t even give her a card and a “thanks for being my mom”. Instead, give her a hug, a big one, unsolicited, unasked for, unexpectedly. And while you’re giving her that hug, whisper in her ear, “You know, I think you’re a great mom.” Acknowledge her. And mean it.
There’s no better Mother’s Day gift you could give.