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What my mom taught me about being a working mother

Whenever there's a tedious new eruption of the so-called Mommy Wars (watch out, Ann Romney), I summon up an indelible image of my mother from when I was around 11. She was heading out, dressed in a form-fitting black coat with a mustard-coloured little hat perched on her head.

In the midst of a difficult marriage that would eventually end in divorce, she was off to a momentous job interview. She landed the job – as an executive assistant at a scholarship trust foundation. And for more than two decades, her work shaped and sustained her.

She taught me valuable lessons about the role of work in a woman's life: I learned that work can be a solace, a refuge, a turning point. It can boost your mental health, give you pride and self-sufficiency, and make you feel necessary in the wider world. And yes, it can rescue you when your marriage goes belly up.

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We don't hear much about the sustaining value of work itself in the trivial furor over whether "good" mothers should work outside the home when their children are young. Of course, I know that being a mother IS work, and argued as such in my book Family Matters.

I belong to a cohort of ambitious women who thought we'd invented the term "working mom," but my mother, by her actions, blew away the whole working mom debate. Born into a generation of American women who were not encouraged to make their mark professionally, she obtained a general arts university degree. But she still had to take a secretarial course before finding work in the U.S. foreign service.

After working in Europe, she was posted to Vancouver, where she met my Dad, a brilliant albeit spectacularly misbehaved newsman. My parents first broke up when my brother and I were toddlers, and my mother, who kept her American citizenship, was terrified that living in Canada, she might lose custody of us if she couldn't support us. So she went to work at a hospital switchboard.

When they reunited, she stayed home for a while, but then, perhaps sensing more difficulty ahead, went back to work for good.

She saved most of her salary – a wife could do that in those days. Those funds sent my brother and me to university, allowed her to travel widely, help her grown children as needed, and most poignantly, as a single grandmother, establish substantive educational plans for all four grandchildren. While she had a modest settlement from her divorce, it was her own carefully managed earnings that gave her a comfortable life until she died five years ago at 90.

She was a glorious mother – attentive, funny, charming and generous. When I struggled to find a "balance" between work and mothering, dramatically squawking about how "hard" it was to, say interview a cabinet minister and tend to a sick child, she bolstered me without irony.

Work is paramount, she would insist. When I wavered and cried, "maybe I am shortchanging my kids" she said crisply, "don't be ridiculous. You are a wonderful mother." My working mother friends, some of whose own mothers treated them like Anna Karenina abandoning the family, begged me to share her.

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By the end of her career, she was the foundation's registrar, respected and valued by a chain of male bosses who looked to her for guidance. She never missed a day of work unless she was really sick, and she never, so far as I knew, told anyone that she was "stressed out."

Her disciplined attitude toward her work continued into retirement, when she gave me one day of kiddie help a week, and volunteered at a teaching hospital the other days. But forget it if I summarily asked her to forgo her volunteer job because a kid was sick. No, she would say regretfully but firmly, "they're counting on me."

That is one way you can end up with what we elusively call self-esteem. You can do it through work. She valued her own contributions and in return was valued.

My mother's attitude toward her work – her diligence, her competence and yes her survival instincts – make her more of a role model than I, much more privileged, am for most of this financially imperilled world. Women in developing countries, struggling for independence with the help of micro-loans, would recognize themselves in my mother, and she in them.

So when I read that Ann Romney, wife of the presumptive GOP multimillionaire nominee Mitt Romney, said in response to a Democrat charging she had never worked a day in her life, that she knew some women weren't as lucky as she was and "had" to work, I thought she missed the point.

My mother may have had to work but she also loved to work. It was her work that made her realize she could make her own way in a difficult world.

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My much more famous but less dependable dad taught me everything I needed to know about being a journalist. That is another story. But this weekend on Mother's Day, I will honour my mother in that jaunty hat, embarking on a lifetime of self-respect and independence because she chose to get a job.

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