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My Mother’s Leap of Faith

Being Pessimistically Optimistic Runs in Our Genes

If they were to hold a contest for the biggest pessimist, my mom would not only win, she’d also be disappointed in her trophy. Frankly, I think it has to do a lot with her upbringing. My mom once told me that every time her family would get into the car to go for a drive, they would all join in saying the rosary. I even have a distinctive memory of Nana, my mom’s mom, telling her, “JoAnn… listen to me. As soon as you turn forty, swallow a bottle of pills because it’s all downhill from there.” The Ferretti family were not optimists.

However, my mother surprised us all when I was around the age of nine. She announced that she would be going to go back to school. It was an uncharacteristically positive move on her part. I remember exactly the way she told me too. I was sitting on the steps in our hallway and she was on her hands and knees with some sort kerchief in her hair desperately cleaning the cracks in the foyer floor. “I just think it’s time.” she said. She seemed so fully concentrated on cleaning that even at that young age, I could tell she was bored with her life. I don’t care what anyone tells you – no one should have to pay that much attention to making a floor shine. I knew instinctively that she should definitely go back to school.

My father also supported the decision despite warnings from an unlikely source: my mom’s dad. Pop-Pop (as we used to call him) was from the old school and strongly cautioned my dad that should he let my mom return to school – she would be sure to leave him. I can’t imagine how my grandfather came up with that conclusion but my dad was smart enough to ignore him. I recently asked my father if he was even the slightest bit worried and he answered, “Your mom used to get depressed about not having any skills at least eight times a year. If school and working was going to put an end to it – I was all for it.”

I used to take such pleasure in seeing her struggle with her homework. She was studying to be in the medical field, which entailed the joy of math. I would silently think, “See! Not as fun as it looks! Huh Mom?” I, of course, neglected to realize that she had had a life before giving birth to my sister, Nadine and me, and was quite familiar with homework assignments. She would sit at the kitchen table, close to tears, trying to conjure up any memory of algebra from Catholic school. Looking back now, I don’t know how the hell she did it. I mean I took a math class just a few years ago and the only recollection I have is that my math teacher was a lesbian. This clearly has nothing to do with math but it was desperately interesting at the time.

During this period, my father was in charge of cooking. It was an endless stream of hot dogs, chili, pizza, and more hot dogs. My sister deemed it the “beige food” period of our lives. While we ate every night, we would talk about our days in general, school, and what we had learned. Typically, Nadine had done well on a test. I would report the elementary school gossip, and my mom would share with us such useful information as how asparagus changed the color and scent of your urine. The more she learned, the less we ate.

After she graduated, she became a full-fledged X-Ray Technologist and quickly got a job at a local family doctor’s office. She would return home after a hard day of work and tell us about a man who walked in some deep snow and had a huge shard of glass go through his foot, or the time someone rode down a hill too quickly on his bike, got a concussion and consequently, couldn’t remember anything before the year 1988, or the time someone was sitting on a porch swing, it collapsed and the person died. Nadine and I began playing in the house more and more often.

Of course, her job would sometimes get to her too. She would come home on occasion at 9PM pissed off. “For two weeks this guy’s been having chest pains and he waits to come in while we’re trying to close up!”

“What was wrong with him?” we’d ask, concerned.

“Oh who the hell knows! He’s sick or something.” I pictured him laying on the street corner clutching his chest while my mother drove away in her Honda Prelude. It was clear that although her compassion would occasionally wane, she liked her job. She liked working with other people (if not the patients), and felt a sense of satisfaction.

I think of that time often. I saw a woman who means the world to me go from bored, unhappy, and unfulfilled to having a sense of pride in herself and capabilities. She had stories of the day to share that went beyond what bleach she used, she had her own money to spend if she felt like being frivolous that day and quite plainly, she was a better mother.

Despite the fact that we are in the year 2018, I still hear much debate on whether women should stay home or go back to work when they have children. I can honestly say that looking back, if I had a choice between her being home and unhappy or working and fulfilled, I would have picked her working every time. She set an example for my sister and me; she went back to school, got a diploma, worked hard at what she was trained in and got paid for it all while raising two kids who ate a hell of a lot of hot dogs. The most important thing to do as a mother is to make sure you’re fulfilling your own needs. In my mom’s case, it was going to work.

Years later, I’m now the mother of two. In my case, two boys. Two very active boys that I can barely keep up with. I work from home so somehow, I’m both a stay-at-home mom and a working mom and that works for me. Well, most days it works for me. Some days, I hide in the bathroom with candy but I digress. I have friends who can’t imagine staying home and have wonderful childcare they feel comfortable with. I also have friends who, as soon as they had children, had no intention of returning to work and enjoy every moment of being home. It’s fitting that my mom said something on this topic that has always stayed with me, and that was, “A happy mom is a good mom.” That’s really the point, isn’t it? To put that proverbial oxygen mask on yourself first, make sure you are doing what you love so that you can be a happy, fulfilled and complete person in order to be the best woman, friend, wife, daughter, mom, co-worker, human, and so forth that you can be. That’s not selfish. That’s self-care. Hell, that’s sanity – plain and simple.

Like my mother, I’m no optimist. My thinking on that is — expect the worst, and you’ll probably be rewarded. True, I am pleasantly surprised when things manage to not suck. But, to be honest, things usually do. Parties never live up to expectations, accomplishments lose their luster, and people continue to disappoint. And yet, even though my mom was no Florence Nightingale, her leap of faith proved inspiration to me, both as a daughter and a woman. It reminded me that, although I know of no scenario other than the worst-case one, I won’t let that stop me from the pursuit of happiness.

So when people ask me if I’m an optimist or a pessimist, I say I’m pessimistically optimistic. Not only is that pretty damn accurate – it’s a family tradition.

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