There were two things I desperately wanted early on in grade school: cold lunches and curled locks.
My peers’ cold lunches always came with sweet surprises, such as Capri-Suns or messages scribbled across quilted paper towels. And the girls’ curled locks — the kind only pink, sponge rollers could create — were just so bouncy.
My second-grade self couldn’t see it at the time, but what I really wanted had nothing to do with high-fructose corn syrup or pageant hair. What I wanted was a stay-at-home mom.
At that time they were, unapologetically, called housewives. Titles aside, I just longed to come home from school and find a woman presenting a plate of warm cookies. If she could wear a frilly apron and the kind of smile ladies in cleaning product commercials always had, even better.
The way I envisioned it, she’d eagerly take my backpack after my cookie binge and put it in its special place, somewhere in the bedroom she’d spent hours tidying. Then, she’d obviously ask if there was anywhere she could drive me. After a trip to the roller-skating rink and ice cream parlor, she’d finally get to packing those lunches and curling her daughter’s locks.
I had a vivid imagination. I also had a working mother and three siblings.
My mom rarely did the whole brown bag and love-notes-on-paper-towels thing. As for pink sponge rollers and three little heads of thick Latina hair, there simply wasn’t time. Once Mami slipped off her pumps, it was all about dinner, homework and her husband.
The matriarch of my family graduated from college, the first of her family to do so, with a business degree. Once all her children were in school, she got her footing on the ol’ career ladder at a global financial corporation and looked upward.
We celebrated promotions with Chinese takeout.
Her titles through the years — payroll supervisor, business systems analyst, project manager — never told me a lot about her job, but by the fifth grade I knew this much. My mom wore fancy clothes to work, carried a briefcase and told people what to do. That was cool. But when she started traveling to New York City for business, it was inspiring.
My dad would bring me along to pick her up from her office sometimes. We’d park, and he’d point to the floor where she worked: at the very top, exactly where my mom was in my eyes.
I bragged enough to friends that they eventually did the bragging for me. Teachers and coaches knew all about Xazmin’s mom, the career woman who sometimes took a plane to business meetings.
Pretty soon, those cold lunches became less desirable. And curled locks? I could curl my own locks. In fact, I could do just about anything myself.
That’s what a daughter learns when the primary supporter of the family is her mother. When she watches her mom’s business trips eventually stretch internationally to Mexico, South America and England, it teaches her, her two sisters and brother something a “You can be whatever you want” speech can’t.
A couple of years ago, I went to dinner with a friend and her tween daughter. Somewhere between bread and the dessert menu, the only person at the table wearing a training bra declared she wanted to one day marry a rich man — so he could buy her anything she wanted.
I never felt so appreciative and aware of the gifts my mom gave me, just by example. The sacrifices and impact she made are resonating now more than ever as a 36-year-old career woman contemplating kids.
Her daughter went from rocking Cabbage Patch Kids to sleep to announcing she would one day work as a lawyer in New York. Lawyers were successful. Successful people lived in New York. The logic wasn’t important, but the ambition certainly was.
I’m thankful for carefully carrying a tray of hot lunch across the cafeteria all those years. I’m glad I never posed for a school portrait with perfect curls. If it meant being raised by a mother who taught me to see women, and my future self, as capable of far more than cooking and cleaning, I’ll take it.
Contact Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.