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Opinion | George Donnelly

Breaking the motherhood mold

(Globe Staff; Adobe)

Way back in the days before the Internet, I would occasionally try to deploy my mom as an instant dictionary as I wrestled with homework. Because she knew words.

“Mom, how do you spell . . . ?”

“Look it up,” she would usually say before I could finish the sentence.

She didn’t explain why, but I knew why. How would a kid learn to spell otherwise? This was emblematic of my mom’s parenting approach, one that believed children had to figure out things for themselves — do their own homework, make their own money, and yes, get into college on their own. It could be seen as neglect by today’s standards, but there was an unspoken credo of self-reliance back then. It was understood that the alternative could be tragic: a dependent child.

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Dependence on a man, she would soon learn, could be even more debilitating. In the summer of 1970, my father left the family — six of us, including five kids, ages 16 to 8, living in a New York suburban outpost. He went to start a new life in the city with a new woman. My mother suddenly was marooned.

But whatever typically was supposed to be her fate, she simply wasn’t having it. She was damned if she would become collateral damage. The odds were against her: Men ruled the world with far greater authority than today.

Soon unfolded an act of early feminism — before the word was commonly used — and the power mothers can command if they so willed it. My mom quickly found an unexpected ally. Her good friend Heidi lived across the street and was going through a divorce as well, one with the threatening wild card of an erratic, abusive husband. Heidi’s domestic options seemed even more limited — in essence, no safe place to go.

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So the two women decided to combine households. Heidi and her three girls moved in with us. It was a sudden merger — a new family. They broke the motherhood mold. The rest of the world would have to adjust.

For a while all hell broke loose. Yet they pushed back against family pressure and were able to forge their own independent lives together. And in the process, they fell in love. They remained together for the next 48 years, eventually marrying, a contented couple until my mom died last summer, at 90.

They both stood out and blended in. On one hand, my mom truly was like a regular suburban parent: substitute teacher, youth league softball coach, ubiquitous spectator to her kids’ itinerant sports activities. On the other, there simmered a painter, poet, chronicler of suburban malaise, a radical and a lesbian at times boiling over with the need for expression.

Even more remarkable about this story is the record my mom left behind. An avid reader — our basement shelves were lined with books — and crisp writer, she captured the drama of the divorces and the creation of the new family in a diary that she eventually published for the family a few years ago. Her short, intense book, “Diary of Survival — Women and Children Starting Over,” recounts the domestic drama and determination with an unsparing eye. More than anything, it is a love story without any outward hint of romance. The two women battled together, forming a bond, and becoming inseparable for the rest of their lives.

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It’s a story of unraveling and rebuilding. The book captures the anger and irony of being male-dependent, cast out, and yet having all of the day-to-day responsibilities of children and domestic life. Then the two women turn the tables. Sorry men, they said, much to the consternation of some, we’ve found a better way.

Here were two women, no jobs, no foreseeable source of support, defying any semblance of conventional thinking about family life at the time. The men leave, the women pick up the pieces. As my mom’s diary pushes forward, it details the domestic chaos of starting a new and challenging life with eight children under one roof while also dealing with intense external pressure, particularly from Heidi’s family, who wanted her to take her husband back and return to the status quo.

I didn’t appreciate the extent of the drama at the time or fully understand the story until my mom privately published the diary for the family. She wanted us to know the truth and also celebrate a remarkable and difficult story, one we knew had a happy ending.

She thought her story of personal triumph might have meaning for others: two women ahead of their time who fought and won. And also mothers, through and through, with all the care and complexity that it entailed.


George Donnelly is a Boston-based communications consultant.