Thoughts on My Conservative Mom Who Raised Lots of Liberal Feminists
My mom is terrific. I got really lucky. I understood she was a better than average mom by the time I was a teenager, and as I’ve raised my own family, I’ve come to understand how really, really good she was at parenting. I’m one of 8 kids (four girls, four boys), and my siblings are kind, smart, creative, interesting, hard-working, and actively engaged in bettering the world around them. Here are 25 stories/observations [5/11 update: I just added 3 more stories so it’s actually 28) about my mom that I hope paint a picture of how I ended up a liberal feminist designer and mother of six, even though my mom has always been politically conservative, and I’ve never heard her call herself a feminist. (Dad was great too, but today, mom get’s the spotlight).
My mom had a lot of kids and tasks vying for her attention, but she tried hard to observe and recognize each of her kids individual strengths and talents and interests, and help us develop them. Each kid was different, and there wasn’t a cookie cutter approach that would have worked for all of us. So that meant lots of different types of lessons and sports and schedules to figure out. She realized dancing is something I enjoyed and put me in dance lessons starting in kindergarten, and then ballet lessons all through elementary school. When I was in 5th grade, I came to realize that she had been bartering for the lessons because we didn’t have the budget to pay for them.
Speaking of which, she was really good at stretching our resources, or adding to them where she could. Dad was public school teacher, there were 8 kids, never enough money, etc.. So she took extra jobs to make our family budget stretch. (Dad did too.) She was resourceful and felt empowered to figure things out.
My mom didn’t assume every kid needed the same thing or get tied up in artificial fairness. There’s a tradition in Mormonism called Family Home Evening (FHE), where Monday nights are set aside to be together as a family, have a discussion, do an activity, and just be together. (The town I grew up in was like 95% Mormon so there were never school activities or other events scheduled on Monday nights.) My mom was pretty consistent about making FHE happen, and the whole family would get different assignments each week so everyone participated. Once, when I was maybe 7 years old, my Mom announced we were going to have a series of FHE where we highlighted each child and what was awesome about them. I was the first child featured — she made a poster about me, and everyone said very nice things and I felt so special. When I was older, I realized we hadn’t continued the series for any of the other kids. She just wanted an excuse to make me feel good because I was having a hard year in school.
My mom was careful to help us be well-rounded and culturally literate. Even though I wasn’t into sports at all, she signed me up for softball for several years in elementary school. I’m not gonna lie, I mostly found it boring. : ) As an adult, I still have fairly little interest in sports, but I’ve always been glad I was exposed to enough football games, basketball games, baseball games, volleyball games, etc., as either a player or an observer, to understand the basics and know what’s happening. Sports is a big deal in America.
She built an apartment for my aunt (her older sister) above our garage. My aunt had severe mental illness and wanted some independence but also needed lots of support. My aunt lived with us for most of my childhood, and I know it made a lot of extra work for my mom — sometimes my aunt went off her meds and it was hard for everyone in the house. But it was also great to learn from a young age how important it is to take care of each other, and to observe up close what we owe each other as both family members and human beings.
My mom is very careful with her language. She never swears, doesn’t like anything crass, and isn’t gossipy. For reference, the word butt was considered a bad word in our house. When I was 5, I remember being sick in bed, and my mom sat next to me and we read books. One of the books was nursery rhymes, and one of the rhymes was:
Slug-a-bed, slug-a-bed, Barley Butt,
Your bum’s so heavy you can’t get up.
She got to the word butt and she started laughing so hard it took her like five tries to finish. I had never heard her say butt before, and was amazed. We laughed so hard we couldn’t stop. I learned that there were “bad” words, but sometimes they were funny too, and they weren’t that big of a deal.
She valued creative projects whether they were big or small. One of her talents is making birthdays feel special. I have lots of themed birthday party memories, and memories of getting to invite friends over. In college, she got a job decorating cakes, and she was really good at it, so our birthday cakes were fantastic. I loved watching her carefully frost a cake, dipping her knife in water to smooth the lines, then pulling out her collection of frosting tips to add patterns and details. I remember one cake with a sleepover theme, where she made people out of frosting who were all lounging around in pjs. She used a mini-marshmallow with a dot of frosting in the middle to make a roll of toilet paper (because going toilet papering was a popular sleepover activity in our town — which seems weird in retrospect). I loved that detail so much! For my 6th birthday, it was a morning breakfast-themed party at my favorite park. The invitations featured a simple sunrise made from construction paper, and they said, “It’s Gonna Be A Great Day” which was the Kelloggs commercial theme song at the time. (If you’re my age, you may remember the tune.) For the cake, she used a beach sandcastle form, and then made rice crispie treats and filled the castle form before they set. Then she flipped it over, removed the form, and it was a rice crispie treat castle. She added some candy details to the castle too.
Similar to the sports example above, my mom made sure we learned music too. She knew it was important for cultural literacy. She made sure we learned how to play an instrument (I took piano lessons for many years), how to sing in a choir, or play with the orchestra, how to see a sheet of music and understand what we’re looking at. One summer when I was six, she organized a kids camp with other moms in the neighborhood, and the kids would go to a different house each week. At one of them, the mom (no memory of who it was), taught all the kids the basic hand motions you use when conducting music in different time signatures. I loved that and would practice the motions in the pews whenever we were in church. She also tried to bring home new music that she’d heard about. In 3rd or 4th grade, I remember her bringing home a Mannheim Steamroller album and thinking it sounded so new, unlike anything I’d ever heard.
She didn’t put much value in “fitting in”. When I was 11, I wanted to quit ballet lessons and try out for Super Steppers, a popular (and very glamorous) dance team in our town, that had a reputation for being hard to get into. I had to learn an assigned dance routine to try out, and I needed to come in dance gear — showing up in shorts and t-shirt wasn’t allowed. We couldn’t afford the cool new dancewear in the stores (it was 1985 and unitards had just hit the scene), but I already had a basic black leotard from my ballet lessons. So my mom took some scraps of coral satin from the sewing cupboard, and she made me a sash with an oversize bow at the back, and matching accessories — cuffs for my wrists, and a bow for my hair. The coral stood out against the black beautifully. I didn’t look like anyone else at tryouts, and it wasn’t a “current” look, so I might have felt out of place, but in reality, I felt SO CUTE and I knew I stood out in the best way. And yes I made the team.
BONUS STORY #1: My mom explicitly taught me to stand up for myself and my family. In sixth grade, I went to a new-to-me school, called Woodward, where my father was a teacher. He wasn’t my teacher (I was in his friend Mr. Humphrey’s class), but it was the first time I was attending the school where my father taught. Before the first day of school, my mom prepped me because she knew there would be kids (and their parents) who would want to harass me about my dad. (He was a big, loud, non-conformist, who wore head-to-toe yellow and was one of about 5 Democrats in our little town. People had strong opinions about my dad.) My mom taught me two reactions I could do if anyone said anything mean to me about my dad. I could put my thumb on my nose, stretch out my fingers and wiggle them — essentially an 11-year-old-appropriate hand gesture for eff-off. Or, I could say: Well you should hear what he says about you. And walk way. I used those options (and additional ones I learned) on many occasions. Thanks to my mom, I’ve been quite good about standing up to people throughout my life — whether it was defending a sibling in middle school, or responding to jerks on Twitter in 2022.
One thing I loved about my mom is that she didn’t hover. I felt pretty independent as a kid. She didn’t bug me about doing homework or ask me about grades or try to make decisions for me. I felt free and confident to go out and try things, to come up with ideas and attempt to make them happen. I knew I could come to her if I got stuck or was in trouble, and she would help me figure things out. When I was 12, the V.C. Andrews books were all the rage. Remember Flowers in the Attic? And one time, during the weekly trip to the library, I was checking out yet another stack of V.C. Andrews. The librarian started lecturing my mother: Don’t you know these books are full of smut and sex and incest? My mom said, “Oh, you’ve read them?” and handed me the books. She trusted me to make my own decisions (and she probably knew that all that stuff was going right over my head, which it totally was).
There is no question that education is a core value for my mom, and it was assumed we would go to college. My mom went back to school for a master’s degree when she still had young kids. I must have been 10 or 11, and I have 3 younger siblings. She had to do a lot of the coursework in the summer, in the evenings, and on weekends. After she finished her master’s degree, she taught in the English department at our local college as an adjunct professor. Growing up, our house felt actively educational, with topical maps, magazines, and books in every room.
She has artistic hobbies. My mom likes to paint and she’s quite good. She’s gone through phases but her watercolor work is what stands out to me the most. There were a lot of years when she didn’t have time to paint (too busy making dance outfits for her daughter, I guess), but after my dad died, she took it up again, and I loved seeing her at her easel. We have two of her pieces in our house right now that I treasure.
My mother has great taste, and an eye for design. There was no real budget for decorating when I was growing up, but she would scramble and figure out how to make things look good. It wasn’t until high school that I understood our house was “designed” in a way that my friends’ houses were not. Instead of an 80’s sofa from the furniture store, we had a vintage leather couch with modern lines that she had salvaged. Instead of the most recent family photo hung over the couch, she made a gallery wall (before that was a thing!) in the entry hallway, featuring all the family photos through the years. The kitchen table was in a nook and around the nook she installed high shelves where she made an Anthropologie-worthy display of baskets, dried flowers, antiques, art, and tchotches. In the family room, she hung a floor-to-ceiling map of the world. She found Marimekko fabric and turned it into bedding. It was the 80s and all of this stuff was very unusual at the time — at least in my town.
Related, my mom knows how to make the house feel cozy and welcoming to everyone who lives there, and to visitors. I still love being in her house, even though it’s not the house I grew up in. It’s beautiful and balanced and interesting and never feels trendy. As a kid, I especially loved our home during the holidays. She would make the most gorgeous Christmas trees and would create artistic displays on the entry table.
We didn’t have travel money, but she made sure we saw as much of the world as she could manage. There were camping trips at the beach, road trips to Tijuana, Mexico, and visits to National Parks. When I was 13, I got a chance to go to Japan with my dance team (yes, the Super Steppers!). She helped me get extra baby sitting jobs and took on extra work herself, so that we could pay for the trip.
She took our projects seriously and understood the value of design. I ran for student government every year in high school, and the whole family would help me out creating campaign materials. Thanks to my mom, we’re all visually-minded people, so the aesthetics of the campaign were something we put a lot of energy and creativity into. My campaigns were visually epic. Huge oversize signs (circles, not rectangles!) on the side of the building. Or 3-D elements on the hallway posters. Or materials in unusual colors. I remember being in the hallway after school when I was 15, and I overheard visitors (kids from another school who had come for a volleyball game) who were looking at campaign posters. They looked at each poster and then pointed at mine and said, “She’s definitely going to win.” I knew my poster was really good and I loved that objective observers could see it too. My mom didn’t study graphic design, but I did, and I know these experiences shaped me.
BONUS STORY#2: My mom loves me whether I succeed or fail. When I was 14, I ran for class president for the first time. My parents were so nervous for me. I was running against a boy and we lived in a place where the default would always be to vote for the boy. They knew how hard I worked on the campaign, and how much this meant to me, but it’s one of those situations where no matter how hard you work, or how qualified you are, the outcome is generally out of your control (as we saw in 2016, urgh). I ended up winning, but it was very close. They told me I won by 7 votes, and they had recounted 3 times to make sure. As soon as the results were announced I was called to the school office. There was a flower delivery waiting for me. I was delighted and surprised. I had only found out I had won two minutes earlier, so how could there be a congratulatory flower delivery already? It turns out my parents had sent the flowers and wanted them to be waiting for me regardless of the election outcome. The note didn’t say congratulations, and it didn’t offer comfort for disappointment. It just said: We love you and we’re proud of you. love, Mom & Dad. They wanted to make sure I felt valued and loved, no matter if I won or lost.
Speaking of high school, I loved how comfortable my friends were talking to my mother. We would come to my house almost everyday for lunch, and they looking forward to chatting with her about whatever was going on. They would bring their term papers for her to help edit, and get advice about college applications. My mom has always been smart, well-read, and aware of what’s happening in the world.
My mom is really good with food. She’s a good cook and she could make our food money stretch. She would make giant batches of chili and freeze them, and then at the end of the month when we were waiting for the next paycheck, she would defrost the chili for dinner. In the summer, we’d head out to local farms to harvest fruit, and then we’d bottle it for the pantry. But the food perspective that I love the most about my mom is that she never hesitated introducing whatever “new” foods had entered American culture. I remember artichokes had a moment. Also asparagus. Pesto became a thing in the 80s. Frozen Yogurt hit the scene. My mom is open-minded about trying new foods and doesn’t mind experimenting.
BONUS STORY #3: My mom understands the value of, and has respect for, domestic skills, even when doing so was very out of fashion. And she passed this respect on to her kids. As part of my upbringing, I was taught things like cross stitch and embroidery, how to make jam and preserve foods, how to thread a sewing machine and follow a sewing pattern, how to plant a vegetable garden, how to hang wallpaper, how to keep a journal, and how to refinish a piece of furniture. I don’t pretend I became proficient at any of these things, but I could do the basics and was very familiar with them. When I was a young mom, Martha Stewart made all things domestic hip again, and a few years later, blogging hit the scene. For me, it was one of those times where you feel like your whole life has prepared you for this specific moment. I created Design Mom in 2006 and could jump right into content creation about parenting, and crafts, and projects with the kids, and birthday parties, and interior design, as if I had been specifically trained for this job — a job that hadn’t even existed a few years before.
My mom is politically active. When I was a kid, I remember seeing her painting a sign. When I asked her what she was doing, she said that she liked this candidate and wanted him to win, but didn’t think he was getting enough attention. So she just decided to make some signs herself and she posted them at busy intersections. Growing up, my mom was a Republican, and my dad was a Democrat. They didn’t always agree on political stuff and that was fine, we were allowed to have different views. These days she lives in a super conservative community where I’m sure there was so much pressure to vote for Trump, and now, to embrace The Big Lie. But she hasn’t given in. She has fully rejected everything about Trump and that whole scene. So many of my friend’s parents have become Fox News Zombies and I’m proud of my mom for resisting the pull.
My mom doesn’t second-guess me. She hasn’t experienced depression for herself, but she has never questioned or doubted my experiences with it, or tried to “cure” me by telling me I just need to serve others, or dumb stuff like that. She’s never judged me for taking depression medication, or tried to talk me out of it.
My mom is a really cute grandma. When she built her current house, she created a grandkids space that’s so inviting, it makes you want to pull out a puzzle or curl up with a book by the window. When our kids visit, she makes individual “hand cookies” (here’s a video). Our family is really spread out, and she knows little kids may not remember her very well, so when she sends birthday cards, she makes sure to include a photo of Grandma & Grandpa Mac, so they’ll seem more real. Between my mom and her husband, they have 18 kids, plus spouses, and dozens of grandkids. And she keeps track of them all, sending birthday and holiday wishes. She follows them on social media and leaves supportive comments on their posts.
I feel like I understood relatively early, that my mom had a different (maybe broader?) perspective than the typical moms in our community. We lived in a small Mormon town in Southern Utah, but she had been raised in Los Angeles, which is not a Mormon community, and she made sure we understood the world could look and function differently than it did in our little town.
My mom loves her kids. She loves bragging about them and is proud of who we’ve become. I know that no matter what I do, she will love me. Even when I cuss on the internet (which she does not like!), she still reads everything I write. Even when we don’t agree on politics or aspects of Mormonism, I know she loves me.
Speaking of which, my mom raised our family in the Mormon church. The church’s attitude toward women in the 80’s was hyper conservative, and very anti-ERA. The woman’s only role is in the home. (It’s improved since then, but is still not great at all!) My mom loves being a Mormon and our religion is very important to her. I’m not sure how it worked out in her head, but my mom always had a job outside the home, and went back to school when her kids were very young, but I never observed that she felt out of alignment with the church’s view of women. Interestingly, I’ve never heard her talk about an alternate career she missed out on. As far as I can tell, she was doing exactly what she wanted: raising a big creative family, taking classes, teaching at the college, painting, reading, doing cool projects. From my perspective, as a kid watching her, it looked like she knew she had choices, and that she had actively chosen the life she had, and didn’t feel forced into it.
Maybe that’s the key. She knew she had choices and she chose what she wanted. Whether or not that was her intention, the importance of being able to make your own choices was instilled in her kids. She still calls herself a conservative, but she managed to raise a whole lot of liberal feminists in a highly patriarchal religion.
It’s late here, and I meant to send this out earlier. Whether you love Mother’s Day, or can’t stand it, or feel meh about it, I hope you’ve found something enjoyable to do today. I’m thinking about you and hoping you’re okay.
P.S. — We aren’t actually celebrating Mother’s Day at our house today, because Betty & Flora June have birthdays and adding Mother’s Day on top is too many things, so we’re going to do the French Mother’s Day instead, which happens later this month.
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